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Philippines lowers volcano alert, thousands can now return home

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At least 135,000 people were evacuated after the Taal volcano in the Philippines burst to life two weeks ago. Ed JONES/AFP

Philippines lowers volcano alert, thousands can now return home

An explosive eruption of restive Taal volcano no longer appears imminent, Philippine authorities said on Sunday as they lifted most of a mass evacuation order but warned residents to remain ready to flee.

Warning signs such as earthquakes have been steadily waning since Taal burst to life two weeks ago with plumes of ash and lava, forcing over 135,000 people into shelters over fears a massive blast was coming.

The nation’s seismological agency said steadily shrinking ash and gas emissions were signs of “decreased tendency towards hazardous explosive eruption”, leading them to lower the alert by a notch.

The immediate impact of the reduced warning was the lifting of the evacuation order for nearly all the towns that ring the volcano, a tourist attraction that sits in the middle of a lake.

“Residents of all towns under lockdown except Agoncillo and Laurel now have the option to return. There’s a possibility that the volcano may still erupt and we should still be ready to evacuate in one hour,” local governor Hermilando Mandanas told a press conference.

Agoncillo and Laurel, which are home to roughly 80,000 people, are the towns closest to the volcano.

No one is known to have died in the eruption, but the ash it unleashed forced the brief closure of the capital’s main international airport, leaving tens of thousands of travellers stranded.

The volcano shot ash 15km-high and spewed lava in the January 12 eruption, which crushed scores of homes and killed livestock as well as crops.

However, seismologists warned the volcano could unleash a much bigger eruption “within hours to days”, posing a deadly risk to anyone in a 14km radius “danger zone”.

By Sunday, seismologists had reduced that exclusion zone by half to include only areas closest to the volcano, like Agoncillo and Laurel.

However, the scientists reiterated that access to the volcano island, which was once home to a community of thousands, and the lake around it “must be strictly prohibited”.

Taal, located just 60km from the capital Manila, is one of the most active volcanoes in a country where eruptions and earthquakes are a dangerous part of life.

Its last eruption was in 1977, but it has a long history of activity. In 1965, a Taal eruption killed some 200 people.

Despite the risks that the volcano erupt could again erupt, many residents were eager to return home.

“That’s where we were born, including my ancestors . . . so we are determined to go back,” said Ronald Humarang, a 32-year-old factory worker.

“I am not afraid [of an explosion] because during the initial eruption we didn’t evacuate our house immediately,” he said.

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