— Mount Sinabung, an active volcano on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, has been spewing ash for months, but a sudden eruption has killed at least 15 people in recent days.
Officials have been cautiously exploring ash-engulfed terrain to recover the victims of Saturday’s blasts, but eruptions Sunday and Monday continue to hamper recovery efforts.
Victims who perished in the consecutive, pyroclastic blasts include a group of students, their teacher, and a reporter. Three local residents believed to be visiting a family grave were also among those killed.
The visiting student group was reportedly distributing aid on behalf of the Christian Students Movement.
Officials said the victims ignored the warnings to avoid the designated hazard zone, including the village of Sukameriah, which is located less than three kilometers from Mount Sinabung’s summit.
Surono, head of the Center for Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation, said his agency has warned local residents to avoid that area for months.
"This is a very bad situation but before the eruptions in 2013 we continued to [educate]… the people around the Sinabung, the dangers of Sinabung, and how to anticipate it if there is an eruption," said Surono.
More than 30,000 people have evacuated the surrounding area since Mount Sinabung started spewing ash clouds, lava and rocks last September.
Volcanic activity intensified from mid to late January, with up to 20 eruptions per day before the fatal blasts.
Surono said his agency and the local community remain on high alert, but the frequency of eruptions, down to ten per day, suggest the level of volcanic activity on Mount Sinabung may be decreasing.
Indonesia, which straddles major tectonic fault lines known as the Pacific Ring Fire, is home to 129 active volcanoes.
The most active of those is Mount Merapi. Eruptions from Merapi killed more than 350 people in central Java in 2010.
Comparing the two volcanoes, Surono said Sinabung is unlikely to unleash that much damage.
“Merapi, the dangerous zone was about 20 kilometers from the summit. Sinabung, it is only five kilometers… If I look at the quantity of information and volcanic activity I think Sinabung is not comparable with Merapi,” said Surono.
However, big or small, Surono said volcanic eruptions are always dangerous, especially when people get too close.
On Monday, the spokesperson for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency confirmed that areas around three separate volcanoes, in Sulawesi and East Nusa Tenggara, had been placed on high alert.
Communities in those areas are now being advised to prepare to evacuate.
Mount Sinabung spews ash as seen from Payung village in Karo district, North Sumatra province, Indonesia, Feb. 3, 2014.
Ash-covered motorcycles are pictured as a rescue team walks by following the Mount Sinabung eruption at Suka Meriah village in Karo, North Sumatra province, Feb. 2, 2014.
A police officer walks through ash during rescue operations after the Mount Sinabung eruption, near Suka Meriah village in Karo, North Sumatra province Feb. 2, 2014.
Nurses dress a victim of the eruption of Mount Sinabung for burial at a hospital in Kabanjahe, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Feb. 1, 2014.
Villagers flee as Mount Sinabung releases pyroclastic flows during an eruption in Namantaran, North Sumatra, Feb. 1, 2014.