Mexico creates restricted zone around active volcano

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MEXICO CITY - Mexico’s giant Popocatepetl volcano may generate lava flows, explosions of “growing intensity” and rain ash that could reach miles away, the National Center for Disaster Prevention said Monday.

Mexican officials were preparing evacuation routes and shelters for thousands of people who live in the shadow of Popocatepetl, which is located 40 miles southeast of Mexico City. Officials have created a 7.5 mile restricted zone around the cone of the volcano.

Popo, as the volcano is known, has displayed a “notable increase in activity levels” in the last few days, including tremors and explosive eruptions, according to a statement from the federal government. The 17,887-foot volcano has been disgorging large towers of steam and ash since mid-April, but officials have become more concerned in recent days as activity intensified.

Webcams have shown large chunks of molten rock spewing from the crater, and ash has rained down on the nearby city of Puebla. On Sunday, the National Center for Disaster Prevention elevated its warning level to “Yellow Phase 3,” the fifth stage of a seven-stage warning scale.

At the next stage, “Red Phase 1,” a voluntary evacuation order will be issued for residents of nearby villages. Then, in a familiar ritual, bells will ring in the town squares, the people will gather with their identification papers in plastic bags, and police and soldiers will offer to haul them away to safety.

Popocatepetl, which means “smoking mountain” in the Aztec language Nahuatl, dominates much of the landscape in central Mexico, along with its nearby “twin” volcano, the dormant Iztaccihuatl. Popo was dormant for decades until 1994, when it began to stir once more.

There have been moderate outbursts from Popo in recent years, forcing the government to evacuate as many as 75,000 people at a time.

The government for the state of Puebla has already sent hundreds of police to three of the most threatened villages, where 11,000 people could be affected. Shelters have been set up and stocked with food, water and clothes.

“We’re ready for any emergency,” said Lidia Carrillo, a spokeswoman for the state.

Volcanologists consider Popocatepetl one of the most potentially destructive volcanoes in the world.

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