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PLAYING WITH FIRE — Life in the shadow of an erupting volcano

March 3, 2009

    You’re having breakfast and the earth starts to shudder. Outside, a column of volcanic ash soars miles into the air. Is this the big one that sends millions of tonnes of ash and molten rock crashing down to vaporize what is left of a volcano-ravaged town?
    With Chile’s Chaiten volcano in deepest Patagonia still erupting 9 months after stirring to life for the first time in thousands of years, ripping a hole through the middle of the picturesque town in its shadow, residents like mechanic Cesar Barria Umanzor are running the gauntlet daily.
    Looking at the devastation wrought by the volcano when it erupted last May sending ash 20 miles (32 km) into the stratosphere, you don’t have to be a volcano expert to realize the town is a write-off — especially given true experts warn the volcano’s cone could continue to collapse as it did last month, potentially smothering the remains of the town.
    With the volcano 6 miles (10 km) from the town, residents reckon they would have around 7 minutes to get out of the way if there is a major eruption. But where to? With the road out in places, that leaves jumping into the sea or a scramble uphill along a scree track.
    Houses swept off their foundations as a torrent of ash redrew the course of a river last year lie buried up to their rafters in debris at haphazard angles.  Children’s toys are strewn abandoned in the dirt months on.
    The government has decided to move the town wholesale 6 miles up the road. But not everyone will move.
    “I’m not afraid. I want to stay here. I built this house from scratch. I started out with one nail, denied my kids candy when they were young to pay for it, and now the government just want me to walk away? Well I won’t,” Umanzor said.
    He and his family are among a few dozen die-hard residents who vow to stay put, despite the fact there is no running water and no electricity.
    With no cars to fix, Umanzor is instead using his time to work on energy self-sufficiency. He has a diesel generator, but the authorities will only give fuel to emergency services.
    So he has connected a series of tractor batteries to a transformer to generate current and is now using hoses to connect a homemade water-wheel to a nearby stream to recharge them. Those batteries kept my laptop going. To read more, click on http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN26229857

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