29 Nov 2017

Tourists, authorities feel the heat as Bali volcano keeps airport closed

7:44 am on 29 November 2017

Indonesia is keeping the airport on Bali closed as ash from Mt Agung sweeps the island, leaving thousands of tourists stranded, while villagers living near the volcano are refusing to leave their homes.

Mount Agung erupts.

Mount Agung erupts. Photo: AFP

A total of 443 flights, both domestic and international, were affected by the closure of the airport, about 60 km from Mt Agung which has been spewing smoke and ash high into the sky for several days.

"Aircraft flight channels are covered with volcanic ash," the transport ministry said in a statement, citing aviation navigation authorities.

The airport - the second-biggest in Indonesia - will be closed at least until 7am local time (12pm NZT) today.

Tens of thousands of people living close to Bali's Mt Agung volcano have so far failed to heed official warnings to move to evacuation shelters.

The volcano continues to spew clouds of white and grey ash, and a red glow can be seen at the top of the mountain as lava bubbles in the crater.

Officials say up to 150,000 people should leave their homes but at last count the shelters had around 30,000.

At the biggest camp in Klungkung, about 20 kilometres from Mt Agung, there are just over 1000 people.

Passengers trapped by cancelled flights due ot ash from Mt Agung at the Ngurah Rai International airport in Denpasar, Bali.

Passengers trapped by cancelled flights due ot ash from Mt Agung at the Ngurah Rai International airport in Denpasar, Bali. Photo: AFP

'The authorities here are not helping'

At the airport, frustration was starting to boil over, with an estimated 2000 people attempting to get refunds and reschedule tickets.

"There are thousands of people stranded here at the airport," said Nitin Sheth, a tourist from India. "They have to go to some other airport and they are trying to do that, but the government or authorities here are not helping."

Others were more relaxed.

"No, there's not a lot of information ... very little. (But) it's all right. We're on holidays so it doesn't matter. We don't know what's going to happen, but we can get back to the bar and have another drink," said Matthew Radix from Perth.

The airport operator said 201 international flights and 242 domestic ones had been hit.

Ten alternative airports had been prepared for airlines to divert inbound flights, including in neighbouring provinces, the operator said, adding it was helping people make alternative bookings and helping stranded travellers.

The airport on Lombok Island, to the east of Bali, had reopened, authorities said, as wind blew ash westward, towards the southern coast of Java island.

Mount Agung erupts at night.

Mount Agung erupts at night. Photo: AFP

Prayers beneath the ash

Agung towers over eastern Bali to a height of just over 3000 metres (9800 feet). Its last eruption in 1963 killed more than 1000 people and razed several villages.

On Tuesday, however, life went on largely as normal in surrounding villages, with residents offering prayers as the volcano sent huge billows of ash and smoke into the sky.

Some villagers who fled in September, when the alert was last raised to the highest level, have gone home despite government warnings.

On Monday, authorities said 100,000 residents living near the volcano had been ordered to get out of an 8-10 km exclusion zone, warning a larger eruption was "imminent".

While the population in the area has been estimated at anywhere between 63,000 and 140,000, just over 29,000 people were registered at emergency centres, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the Disaster Mitigation Agency.

"Not all people in the danger zone are prepared to take refuge," he said.

"There are still a lot of residents staying in their homes."

Indonesia's Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Centre has warned that an eruption of a size similar to that seen in 1963 could send rocks bigger than a fist flying a distance of up to 8 km, and volcanic gas a distance of 10 km within three minutes.

Monitoring has shown the northeastern part of Agung's peak had swollen in recent weeks "indicating there is fairly strong pressure toward the surface", the centre said.

- Reuters

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