MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia – Hot gas and molten lava from Mount Merapi forced the evacuation of 3,000 people Wednesday, amid warnings that a large eruption at Indonesia's most dangerous volcano was still possible.
"It has the potential to spew bigger hot clouds," said Subandriyo, a vulcanologist monitoring Merapi's peak, adding that scorching ash and debris shot nearly two miles down the mountain's flank on nine separate occasions Wednesday.
The volcano's lava dome has swelled in recent weeks, raising concerns that it could suddenly collapse and send scalding clouds of gas and debris into populated areas.
Some scientists say a powerful May 27 earthquake that killed more than 5,700 people in area only 25 miles south of Merapi may have contributed to the increased activity at the volcano.
Subandriyo said the mountain appeared a little calmer than on Monday and Tuesday, but that it was still in a state of flux.
Indonesia's disaster management office said 3,000 people were evacuated Wednesday, bringing the number who left since the alert level was raised to its highest level three weeks ago to nearly 23,000.
Weary Indonesian refugees living in a camp near the mountain said they desperately wanted to return home but fears of a new lava burst and searing volcanic gas have kept them away.
"A hot gas cloud is one of our worst nightmares," said Teguh Rahardjo, 64, recalling how a large eruption in 1994 killed 60 people and decimated houses, fields and animals. About 1,300 people were killed when it erupted in 1930.
An elderly woman who uses the single name Sontani said that after 36 days in the camp, she wants to go home but is afraid her village will be destroyed.
"I saw many big stones, some as big as my house, come down from the crater to our village," Sontani said. "I'm very afraid and prefer to stay here."
Puji Pujiono, leader of the United Nations disaster assessment and coordination team at the site, said 3,500 people living near the base were evacuated this week, many taken in trucks and cars to temporary shelters. Thousands living nearer to the peak had already been relocated.
Pujiono said a U.N. helicopter was to fly over the 9,800 foot peak later Wednesday, and that a status report would be filed later in the evening, but he did not think the mountain was any more dangerous than it was three weeks ago.
Indonesia is located on the so-called Pacific "Ring of Fire," a string of volcanoes and fault lines that encircle the Pacific Basin. It has 76 volcanoes, the largest number of any nation.