Hundreds evacuated in PNG after volcano erupts

8:44 pm on 26 June 2019

Dozens - potentially hundreds - of people in a remote part of Papua New Guinea's New Britain were fleeing from their villages on Wednesday, after one of the country's most active volcanoes erupted into life.

Mt Ulawun started erupting at about eight in the morning, local time.

Mt Ulawun started erupting at about eight in the morning, local time. Photo: AFP / Niugini Helicopters / Craig Powell

Mt Ulawun, which straddles the boundary of East and West New Britain provinces started erupting at about 8 in the morning, local time, said Steve Saunders, from the nearby Rabaul Volcano Observatory.

Mr Saunders said the volcano had been showing signs of increased activity for the past few weeks, but the eruption started in earnest on Wednesday, when the 2,334 metre volcano started spewing ash as high as 13km into the air.

"There's been some force behind it," Mr Saunders said, adding that the volcano was still erupting steadily on Wednesday evening.

Thousands of people live around the base of Mt Ulawun, which lies a five-hour drive away from the West New Britain capital, Kimbe. Authorities told RNZ that officials had been dispatched to help with the evacuations, although many villages had already started evacuating their homes themselves.

Residents in a local Facebook forum described the sky turning black, as well as what they said was a lava flow near Noau village and Eana Valley.

Christopher Lagisa, a resident, said in a message that people had been working all day to shepherd people to a local church.

"Around 3,000 plus were gathered at the Church hall and all vehicles from Ulamona, a six ton truck, a long wheel bases Isuzu and Mama truck, Fathers Land Cruizer Ute and my 5 Door LC have been working flatout moving people to Kabaya Community," he wrote. The numbers have not been confirmed by officials.

"The immediate need now would be food, water and medicine as we were just recovering from the long wet season."

Flights to New Britain had been cancelled, according to local media reports, and Australia's Bureau of Meteorology had issued a "red" warning to airlines.

At Ulawun, Mr Saunders said his teams were nervously watching. The volcano was steadily rumbling away, he said, belching ash and gases, but could either settle down or intensify in the coming hours.

"It's still early days [as] to what it's going to do," he said.