Villagers stay in shadow of Mount Kelud

RISKY BUSINESS: Despite warnings from scientists and the government, it was life as usual for many of the farmers living next to the deadly Javanese volcano


Mon, Nov 05, 2007 - Page 4

Farmers tended sugar cane and children rode bicycles in the shadow of a killer Indonesian volcano yesterday, defying scientists' warnings that the smoking mountain was poised for a powerful eruption.

The top scientist monitoring Mount Kelud said that the temperature of its crater lake had reached 76oC -- a rise of more than 25 degrees over the last 24 hours, indicating that an eruption could be imminent.

Despite the danger, authorities said 25,000 people were ignoring evacuation orders and remained in the danger zone around Kelud. There was no attempt made to stop people from traveling inside a 10km zone around the peak that officials said is off limits.

"They believe it will not erupt," said Sight Raharjo, a spokesman for the local government close to the mountain in the heart of the country's densely populated Java island. "They are being very foolish. All we can do is ask them to leave."

Kelud -- one of more than 100 active volcanos in Indonesia -- has been on the highest alert level for more than two weeks, but on Saturday it recorded a spike in activity that led scientists wrongly to declare an eruption had begun.

Scores of people, including women carrying babies in slings, fled the mountain in police trucks and on bicycles and motorcycles to stay in government buildings and tent camps, but yesterday there appeared to be little sense of panic on the mountain.

"If I live in a shelter, I can't make money," said Buhirin, a 74-year-old farmer living well within the danger zone. "I have the courage to stay because I have experienced three Kelud eruptions. I know where the lahar [flows of mud and hot water expelled from the crater] will flow."

Scientists fear the buildup of magma under the lake could trigger a violent blast, sending a torrent of mud, ash and rock pouring down the side of the 1,731m mountain.

On Saturday, the peak recorded nonstop volcanic tremors as well as a surge in temperature in its lake. Monitors fled their posts convinced an eruption had begun, but were unable to see it because the mountain was shrouded in fog. They later said it had not erupted.

Surono, the lead scientist monitoring Kelud, said heat in the lake was creating a cloud of smoke and steam some 500m high, but that Kelud had not erupted.

In 1990, Mount Kelud erupted, killing more than 30 people. In 1919, a powerful explosion that could be heard hundreds of kilometers away destroyed dozens of villages and killed at least 5,160.

For weeks, authorities have pleaded with villagers to move to tent camps or stay in government buildings, but have faced resistance. Many people have insisted on staying behind to tend crops or look after their houses.

Some apparently believe a local myth that the mountain won't erupt if residents turn off all the lights and speak softly.