Sitting on the edge of natural disaster

They live by an active volcano – but 70 Chaiten residents refuse to leave. Jimmy Langman reports

The Chaiten volcano in northern Patagonia, Chile, had been dormant for 9,500 years under its obsidian dome before erupting spectacularly and without warning one year ago, spewing ash 20km (12 miles) into the air and forcing the local population to flee.

In February it exploded again with renewed fury, ripping a 1km tear in the south side of the dome and prompting the government to order the indefinite evacuation of the 200 residents who had returned during the previous year. But today, 70 of the residents stubbornly refuse to leave, living day-to-day without running water or electricity and in constant danger of being swallowed up by new volcanic activity.

The danger they face is intense, and could blow up in their faces at any moment. "The pyroclastic flow from a volcano can travel downhill at 100km/h [60mph]," says Luis Lara, a government volcanologist. "The town could be in flames in less than 10 minutes." But Chaiten's last people sit tight and the government has found no legal way to shift them against their will.

The dusty streets are quiet now in what has become a virtual ghost town. At least 10 times a day the town is rocked by earthquakes, with recent tremors measuring as much as 4.2 on the Richter scale.

But a local furniture maker, Baudilio Tacul, 60, says he moved to Chaiten 45 years ago with his father and that to leave now would be a fate worse than suicide. "Everything we have is in this place. Our livelihood, our homes. You can't replace the tranquility we have here."

For Mr Tacul, government negligence is to blame for the mess the town is in. "They should have been here nine months ago building an embankment to stop floods," he says. The great risk the volcano poses now is from lahars, landslides of volcanic debris provoked by new eruptions which risk destroying the town completely through flooding.

But for the time being, the holdouts sit tight and admire the show. At the El Rancho Supermarket on Diego Portales Street in Chaiten, Ingrid Ovando, 46, sits outside with a few stray dogs, and calmly watches as the lava dome collapses again and again, an event that seems to happen about once an hour. She admits to being scared. "Yes, we are all afraid, but we have debts piling up. What will we do with our things if we leave?"

On a bridge over the Blanco River, a prime spot to view the volcano's dome collapses, Cristian Villegas, 33, the lone remaining volunteer fireman in town, said that when he sets off his alarm, everyone has six minutes to get out. If any of the remaining inhabitants fail to reach the safety zone just outside town, it will be Villegas' job to ensure that they get there, possibly sacrificing his life in the process. "Every day I think about what will happen," he says.

Chilean officials announced that the reconstruction of the town, a provincial capital, will get under way this year in the coastal village of Santa Barbara, 10kms to the north, which is protected from the volcano by high mountains.

Rebuilding the original town is out of the question, they say, because scientists fear that the volcano could remain active for decades.

Officials are insistent that everyone must leave Chaiten permanently, but their power to enforce the order has been successfully challenged by lawyers for the holdouts.

Almost all the 7,000 people that formerly populated Chaiten are refugees in other Chilean cities and towns now, some having completely lost their homes when a lahar caused the Blanco River to flood.

The eruptions at Chaiten have prompted the government belatedly to update its monitoring facilities, increasing from eight to 43 the number of volcanoes it is watching.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links