Indonesian volcano eruption strands over 59K passengers after Bali’s airport is closed

Volcanic eruptions from Mount Agung on the Indonesian resort island of Bali have forced the closure of the island’s main airport, and the evacuation of thousands of residents living in the island’s northeast.

Thick ash started shooting thousands of meters into the air above Mount Agung on Saturday, driving east and southeast along the archipelago, causing dozens of flight cancellations.

At Ngurah Rai International Airport, Bali’s main airport, flights were canceled for 24 hours from 7.15 a.m. Monday local time (6 p.m. Sunday ET), stranding roughly 59,000 domestic and international passengers, according to the airport’s latest report.

“While the sun is shining and there is little sign of volcanic ash in the southern regions of Bali, evidence of volcanic ash at higher altitudes on aviation approach and departure paths has prompted the decision to close the airport,” Bali Tourism Board Chairman Ida Bagus Agung Partha Adnyana said in a statement.

Indonesia’s Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation has raised its aviation alert notice to red, the highest level, indicating the potential for a larger eruption is imminent.

The National Agency for Disaster Management issued a Level 4 alert, recommending no public activities within 8 to 10 kilometers from the peak. Anyone within that distance of the peak was advised to evacuate.

Over the weekend, 24,000 residents were evacuated from across the island while Lombok International Airport on Lombok, the island due east of Bali, closed temporarily, said Ari Ahsan, spokesman for Ngurah Rai airport. Flights from Lombok resumed early

Bali is a popular tourist destination which welcomes more than a million visitors from nearby Australia every year, as well as hundreds of thousands of Chinese guests.

The main tourist centers are some distance from Mount Agung. Bali’s artistic hub, the small town of Ubud, is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the volcano, and Denpasar (where the airport is located) and the popular Kuta Beach are more than 63 kilometers (40 miles) away.

Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes around Mount Agung in September when the alert was first raised. At the time, an evacuation zone of 12 kilometers around Mount Agung was established, and travelers were warned to stay clear of the area.

The evacuation zone is based on the last time Agung erupted in 1963, killing more than 1,700 people and destroying many villages, some on the slopes of the mountain.

Eruptions started Saturday

The ash, which began spewing into the sky after Mount Agung in eastern Bali erupted three times Saturday, has reached heights of 4,000 meters (about 2.5 miles), according to Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, head of information and data for Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency.

The first eruption came around 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Bali’s Regional Disaster Management Agency said. More eruptions followed and continued into Sunday, with a “medium-pressure eruption” in the early evening that sent ash 2,000 meters into the air, the agency said.

“The volcanic eruption has now moved on to the next, more severe, magmatic eruption phase, where highly viscous lava can trap gasses under pressure, potentially leading to an explosion,” Mark Tingay, a geologist at the University of Adelaide’s Australian School of Petroleum, said in a statement Monday.

“The local authorities are extremely experienced in managing volcanic eruptions, and have the situation extremely well in-hand.”

Ash fall was reported in the villages of North Duda, East Duda, Pempetan, Besakih, Sidemen, Tirta Abang, Sebudi, Bhuana Amerta in Klungkung and in some villages in Gianyar. Masks are being distributed in Bali and Pulau Lombok.

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, Mochamad Andri and Ben Westcott