MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia — Mount Merapi shot a large cloud of searing hot ash and gas into the sky Wednesday, ending two days of relative calm and underscoring the dangers still facing thousands of people living on the volcano’s slopes.
Witnesses said the eruption appeared to be smaller than the mountain’s most violent sputterings Monday, when ash and gas clouds surged around 2½ miles from the peak and triggered panic.
Vulcanologists keeping the mountain on 24-hour watch were not immediately available for comment on the eruption just after 5 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET), which sent debris plunging down its western flanks, but appeared to fall well short of populated areas.
Earlier Wednesday, farmers journeyed high up Merapi’s slopes collecting grass for cows and children kicked soccer balls — both within a 3.7-mile zone declared off-limits when the mountain was placed on its highest alert Saturday.
“There is nothing to worry about here,” said Warkijho, a farmer who like many in his village deep within the government-ordered evacuation zone has refused to leave. “The scientists may be concerned, but in my heart I know it is safe.”
Slideshow: Mountain of Fire Despite the calm over the last 48 hours, experts had said that Merapi remained dangerous. The mountain has kept spitting out red-hot rocks and lava flows that light the night sky.
A 3 million-cubic-yard lava dome that has built up over the mountain’s slow-burn eruption in recent weeks was still perched on the crater and could collapse, triggering a deadly surge in ash and gas, scientists have warned.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Wednesday met with some of the more than 5,000 people who have fled the volcano and are staying in temporary housing such as converted schools. Yudhoyono and his wife stayed Tuesday night in a tent among the refugees.
Another 11,000 are thought to have fled the area, but Yudhoyono urged those still refusing to leave the evacuation zone to move to safety.
Most of those refusing to go were farmers who have crops to tend or animals to feed.
Mount Merapi, which translates as “Fire Mountain,” has erupted scores of times over the last 200 years, often with deadly results. It is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
In 1994, 60 people were killed by a searing gas cloud while in 1930 more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving 1,300 dead.
The volcano plays a central role in the belief system of villagers living on its fertile land. Many of them believe spirits watching over the volcano will warn them of danger.
An 80-year-old man entrusted by the nearby royal court to be the spiritual guardian of the volcano has been criticized because he has refused to evacuate.
Instead of going down the mountain, the guardian hiked up it Tuesday morning to meditate and has not yet returned, his daughter and other villagers said Wednesday.
“I know what dad is like,” said the daughter. “He needs to do this, and God willing, things will now be calm.”
During the last eruption in 1994, most of the 70 deaths were caused by the outpouring of hot ash and other material following the collapse of a lava dome.
Vulcanologists say as the clouds emerge from the crater their temperature can approach 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit, although the heat drops rapidly once the gas shoots up into the air.
Merapi, about 280 miles east of Jakarta, sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire.”
Indonesia was the nation hardest hit by the December 2004 tsunami. Around 170,000 Indonesians were killed.
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