By EDUARDO GALLARDO
Associated Press Writer
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) -- Authorities evacuated hundreds of people from villages in southern Chile Friday after a snowcapped volcano considered dormant for thousands of years erupted. The blast sent minor earthquakes rippling through the region.
The 1,200-meter (3,550-foot) Chaiten volcano belched fire and ash Thursday night, causing more than 60 small tremors in the Los Lagos region, 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) south of the capital, Santiago, the government's Emergency Bureau said.
Mild seismic activity could continue for the next several days, said bureau director Carmen Fernandez.
Chile's government declared a state of emergency, evacuating as many as 1,500 people from nearby villages and the town of Chaiten, just over 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the volcano, the bureau said.
The amount of ash falling in Chaiten had dropped considerably by Friday afternoon, and the wind was moving it southeast, Emergency Bureau volcanologist Juan Cayupi told the Associated Press by telephone there.
Ash from the eruption was polluting water supplies and prompting officials to hand out more than 10,000 protective masks, said Interior Minister Edmundo Perez.
Military, police, doctors and seismologists traveled to the region by sea to avoid the area's remote mountain roads, Los Lagos Gov. Sergio Galilea said.
Winds also carried ash over the Andes mountains to neighboring Argentina, where the Education Ministry suspended classes in several towns, including Esquel and Trevelin -- two popular Patagonian tourist destinations.
Authorities there declared a state of alert on two major highways as falling ash reduced visibility.
The Chaiten volcano has "probably been dormant for about 9,000 or 10,000 years but that's not unusual," said Charles Stern, a professor of volcanology at the University of Colorado, who specializes in Andes volcanoes.
Stern, who has studied Chaiten specifically, said it is still considered "a potentially active volcano."
Chaiten last had "an explosive eruption that generated a very big ash cloud," he added. "I would really worry about the village of Chaiten. I think they would want to get everybody out of there really soon."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)