The Popocatepetl volcano shot a heavy plume of ash into the sky southeast of Mexico's capital and spewed glowing rock from its crater at dawn today.
Webcam images on the site of the National Disaster Prevention Center showed the plume rising from the top of the 17,886-foot peak at dawn, though clouds obscured the volcano for people further away. The Televisa television network broadcast images of red, glowing material rising from the crater and falling on its slopes.
Authorities this week raised the alert level due to increasing activity at the volcano, whose most violent eruption in 1,200 years occurred on 18 December 2000.
The coordinator general for civil protection, Laura Gurza, told Televisa that officials were not yet ready to order any evacuations, but urged people living near the mountain to be "very, very attentive" to action at the volcano, which is about 40 miles from Mexico City. She also urged them to gather important papers and to have their escape routes planned in case they have to leave.
The ash was blowing to the northeast, in the general direction of the city of Puebla.
Residents of Huejotzingo, 18 miles from the peak, went about the day as normal despite a magnificent plume of ash and water vapor. Luz Maria de Olate, 35, put her 5-year-old in a surgical mask because the teachers said the ash could damage children's lungs.
But like hundreds of other residents on the flank of the volcano, she doesn't fear an eruption. Neither did her son as they headed for school.
"I'm not afraid. He's my uncle," said Oscar Olate, expressing the personal relationship many in the Mexico Valley feel toward Popocatepetl, whose name means "smoking mountain" in the indigenous Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.
People view it with fondness, said street vender David Gorzo Navarro, 45.
"When the ash falls, it's like fertilizer," he said.
More than 30 million people live within view of the volcano, which sits at a point where the states of Mexico, Puebla, and Morelos come together. It has been erupting intermittently since December 1994.
President Felipe Calderon said Mexicans are living in complicated times, given the 2009 swine flu outbreak and floods and drought this year.
"All we're missing is an eruption of Popocatepetl and we'll complete the picture," he said in a speech late Thursday. "Hopefully not," he added, knocking on wood.