SAN MARCOS, Mexico – The Volcano of Fire (search) has rumbled back to life with its strongest eruptions in 20 years, spewing lava and ash clouds that had some residents who remained in their homes Wednesday casting nervous glances at the peak.
The volcano, which straddles the line between Colima and Jalisco states 430 miles west of Mexico City (search), has had six spectacular eruptions in the past three weeks.
The largest, late Monday, shot glowing lava three miles above the crater of the 12,533-foot volcano and showered ash over the nearby city of Colima (search).
"The ground shook, and there was this roar, and people came running out of their houses," said Maria de Jesus Chavez, a 17-year-old high school student, as she sat outside her home in San Marcos.
Authorities handed out surgical masks to prevent people from breathing the fine grit, and so far the volcano has caused no major injuries or damage.
Seismologist Tonatiuh Dominguez said the increasing frequency of the eruptions and their intensity signaled the volcano was returning to an explosive stage like one that started in 1903 and climaxed with a massive explosion 10 years later that left a 1,650-foot-deep crater at the volcano's peak and scattered ash on cities 240 miles away.
The 1913 eruption killed dozens of farm animals, but records aren't clear on whether there were any human casualties.
"I think that we're seeing something similar to what occurred a century ago," said Dominguez, of the University of Colima. "We are comparing it to 1903, when there were more than 200 explosions in one year."
"It's possible that we will see another one like 1913 in the coming decade," he added.
Federal Civil Protection Coordinator Carmen Segura headed to the volcano zone Wednesday and said officials planned to improve their monitoring.
Residents of Juan Barragan, El Borbollon and Yerbabuena, all within five miles of the peak, were asked Monday to leave the towns voluntarily. Most have complied, although about 50 stayed in Yerbabuena.
The Colima state government has been trying to relocate Yerbabuena's residents to safer ground, offering them free land. More than 100 have left in the past two years, but those who remain have declared themselves an independent municipality and refuse to leave.
"Our Mother Earth has no price," said Antonio Alonso Ocegueda, a beekeeper and faith healer. "If there are explosions, our Father Sun will set up magnetic fields and nothing will happen."
Only a few residents of Juan Barragan and El Borbollon remain and about 60 others have been temporarily moved to an improvised shelter in San Marcos, 7 1/2 miles from the summit.
"People had become pretty skeptical in recent years, because they have been evacuated before and then nothing happened," said Luis Rodriguez, civil defense coordinator for the state of Jalisco.
But he said attitudes had changed with the latest eruptions. Many witnessed Monday's explosion while waiting for buses to take them away.
"People who hadn't got on the bus said suddenly, 'Hey, make room for me,'" he said.
Before dawn Wednesday in San Marcos, families sat outside their homes, looking anxiously at the volcano.
"There are a lot of people who would like to leave, because this time they think it could really reach us," Chavez said.
A few families have insisted on staying, concerned their few possessions might be stolen or that they might be forbidden to return. About 300,000 people live within 25 miles of the volcano.
Authorities have established an off-limits zone 4 1/2 miles around the crater, and an alert zone is in effect for seven miles.
The volcano has had more than 30 periods of eruptions since 1585, including several significant eruptions in the late 1990s. Scientific monitoring of the volcano began 20 years ago.
It came to life again on May 23, sending a stream of burning gas and rock fragments more than 2 1/2 miles down the slopes and shooting clouds of ash two miles high.
Similar eruptions occurred on May 30, June 2-3 and June 5.
Ash coated cars and streets in the state capital, Colima, 20 miles from the peak, and authorities recommended residents wear masks and sunglasses or goggles to avoid respiratory and eye irritations.
The Volcano of Fire is considered to be among the most active and potentially the most destructive of Mexico's volcanoes.