Inside the Danger Zone of Mayon Volcano

Inside the Danger Zone of Mayon Volcano. Written by Ephraim Aguilar for SubSelfie.com.

That fiery red lava trickling down the slopes of Mayon Volcano is a paradox.

Like a fireworks display, it keeps Albay villagers awake in the middle of the night. Some would even take a break from their favorite evening teleserye just to watch the volcano simmer. For us locals, it is such a delight to behold — enchanting and mysterious. Yet at the same time we know, behind the peerless beauty of Mayon, there is wrath and potential destruction.

The 2,462-meter volcano is restive again. And soon enough, a throng of domestic and foreign tourists will surely start flying in. It brings me back to December of 2009; thousands of volcano-watchers flocked into the province. Hotels were fully-booked.

There were almost no vacant tables at Small Talk Café, a popular local restaurant that serves its signature Pasta Mayon. Taxi drivers and car rental services were on round-the-clock operations. Business boomed while waiting for the big bang. But it never came.

Rice planting season in 2013. Farmers plant rice near the Mayon Volcano in Camalig town, Albay province. Photo courtesy: Nino Jesus Orbeta of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Rice planting season in 2013. Farmers plant rice near the Mayon Volcano in Camalig town, Albay province. Photo courtesy: Nino Jesus Orbeta of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Lessons from the Past

It wasn’t always like a fiesta.

In my coverage of the 2006 eruption for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I met farmer Gregorio Abellano of Barangay Mabinit in Legazpi City. And he recounted his fears. On Feb. 2, 1993, he said he heard what seemed like the engine of an airplane roaring overhead. The volcano spewed hot rocks over his farm in Sitio Balagbag Na Bulod, which was not far away from the crater.

Abellano ran for his life, away from the “tuga” (rain of fire) and “uson” (swirling hot clouds) that descended swiftly on Mayon’s slopes. Some 50 meters away, he found shelter inside a shallow hole he dug for his copra produce. But he wasn’t able to escape the searing heat that licked his skin. It caused major burns in his face and body, leaving a big scar and a painful memory.

But not everyone was as lucky as Abellano. A total of 79 farmers died in the 1993 eruption.

Tourist attraction. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta
Tourist attraction. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta

Incredibly Close

In 2006, Mt. Mayon’s lava trail broke record to be the longest in 30 years. It was so long it encroached the six-kilometer-radius permanent danger zone, where the farmlands are.

I was then a neophyte countryside journalist when I had the chance to have a close encounter with Mayon in its restive state. It was a risk that I took out of curiosity. The goal of our climb was to reach the lava front or the edge of the lava trail. We got there after a few hours’ trek.

The lava front looked like a humongous mound of blazing soil with rocks and boulders. It was so hot we couldn’t come so near. During the climb, there were times we could hear the volcano’s loud rumblings and feel the momentary ground tremors — signs of magma rising inside the volcano’s pipe.

The lava, which was as high as a four storey building, was moving and slowly inching towards us. It burned and trampled the coconut trees that blocked its way.

I got back to base alive.

Lava flow in 2009. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta
Lava flow in 2009. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta

Cagsawa Ruins

The year 1814 is engraved in every Albayano’s mind. What could be Mayon’s most lethal eruption in recorded history happened that year.

None of us have lived in that era, but the tragic tale has been passed on through generations like tales of the Second World War. The volcano belched dark ash and spewed pyroclastic materials that engulfed the town of Cagsawa. More than 2,000 people were believed to have perished. The town church was buried and only its belfry remains standing to this day. The belfry at Cagsawa Ruins at Barangay Busay in Daraga, Albay is what you’d normally see on postcards and history books.

But more than that, for the Albayanos, it is a standing reminder of Mayon’s fury that hides beneath its slopes.

Cagsawa Ruins. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta
Cagsawa Ruins. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta

Quiet Eruption

At times, the devastation brought by Mayon doesn’t happen in a bang.

What state volcanologists called a “mild and quiet” eruption in 2006, claimed more than 800 lives. But the tragedy happened only four months after the first ash explosion in July. For months, the volcano constantly spewed lava that were deposited on the volcano’s slopes. Thousands of families were evacuated, though the villages remained unharmed.

Until November came, when super typhoon Reming hit the province.

Rainwater swept an avalanche of volcanic debris from the slopes and gullies down to the villages — wiping off vulnerable communities. Hundreds of people were buried under lahar and many of them have never been found.

Albay's Paradox. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta
Albay’s Paradox. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta

Disaster Protocols

Albayanos have the reputation as masters of disasters. When Alert Level 3 was hoisted over Mt. Mayon by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) Monday night, an evacuation plan was ready by dawn of Tuesday. Mandatory evacuation began in less than 24 hours and the evacuation target was hit within 48 hours.

Of course, temporary shelters have already been pre-designated while a disaster response protocol has been carefully designed to work even down to the village level. The provincial government long ago formed the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (APSEMO). And through the years, it has refined its best practices disaster after disaster.

For a province often exposed to various calamities and hazards like Albay, preparedness has become a knee jerk reaction.

Haunting Past. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta
Haunting Past. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta
Masters of Disaster. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta
Masters of Disaster. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta

Cruel Irony

But Albayanos would easily forgive Mt. Mayon, even if the volcano has claimed thousands of lives. When the lava cools down and the rumblings end, residents living near or within the danger zones would still go back to their villages, back to their normal lives.They return to their farms on the fertile slopes of the volcano, because it’s their main source of living. It feeds them and their children.

So Albayanos are torn between hating a killer volcano and loving the same for its economic value and enthralling beauty — a bittersweet irony that sparks resilience.

Majestic Supervisor. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta
Majestic Supervisor. Photo courtesy: Niño Orbeta

[Entry 49, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Ephraim Aguilar wears black almost all the time. He learned to play the ukulele to calm his rage. Presently, he is the Project Head for SubStory — the video documentary subsection of SubSelfie.com. He is also an Executive Producer for News TV Live and a News Producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. He was also previously a Southern Luzon Correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Journalism 2006, Bicol University. Read more of his articles here.

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