Indonesian authorities raised the alert for a rumbling volcano on Bali to the highest level on Monday, stranding tens of thousands of travellers as ash clouds forced the closure of the tourist island’s international airport.
Mount Agung has been hurling clouds of white and dark gray ash about 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) into the atmosphere since the weekend. Video released by the national disaster agency showed a mudflow of volcanic debris and water known as a lahar moving down the volcano’s slopes. It said lahars could increase as it’s rainy season and warned people to stay away from rivers.
Bali’s airport was closed early Monday after tests indicated ash had reached its airspace and authorities raised the volcano’s alert to the highest danger level.
Flight information boards showed rows of cancellations as tourists arrived at the busy airport expecting to catch flights home.
Airport spokesman Air Ahsanurrohim said 445 flights were cancelled, stranding about 59,000 travellers. The closure is in effect until Tuesday morning though officials said the situation will be reviewed every six hours.
Bali is Indonesia’s top tourist destination, with its gentle Hindu culture, surf beaches and lush green interior attracting about 5 million visitors a year.
Some flights to and from Bali were cancelled on Saturday and Sunday but most had continued to operate normally as the towering ash clouds were moving east toward the neighbouring island of Lombok.
“We now have to find a hotel and spend more of our money that they’re not going to cover us for when we get home unfortunately,” said Canadian tourist Brandon Olsen who was stranded at Bali’s airport with his girlfriend.
Geological agency head, Kasbani, who goes by one name, said the alert level was raised because the volcano has shifted from steam-based eruptions to magmatic eruptions. However he said he’s still not expecting a major eruption.
“We don’t expect a big eruption but we have to stay alert and anticipate,” he said on Indonesian TV.
The volcano’s last major eruption in 1963 killed about 1,100 people.
The exclusion zone around the crater was widened to 10 kilometers (6 miles). Previously it ranged between 6 and 7.5 kilometers.
Ash has settled on villages and resorts around the volcano and soldiers and police distributed masks on the weekend.
In Karangasem district that surrounds the volcano, tourists stopped to watch the towering plumes of ash as children made their made to school.
Indonesia sits on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ and has more than 120 active volcanoes.
Mount Agung’s alert status was raised to the highest level in September following a dramatic increase in tremors from the volcano, which doubled the exclusion zone around the crater and prompted more than 140,000 people to leave the area. The alert was lowered on October 29 after a decrease in activity but about 25,000 people remained in evacuation centres.