Image: Montserrat Volcano
Wayne Fenton  /  AP
A cloud of superheated ash and gas flows from the Soufriere Hills volcano, as seen from Olveston, Montserrat, Monday, Jan. 8, 2007. The cloud reportedly shot up more than 5 miles into the sky, and authorities warn that more significant activity is possible in the coming days.
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updated 1/8/2007 7:39:00 PM ET 2007-01-09T00:39:00

The volcano that destroyed Montserrat's capital in 1997 shot a cloud of ash more than five miles into the sky on Monday, and one of the island's chief scientists said the blast was "a warning call."

The government has advised about 50 families on the northwestern side of the volcano's base that their homes were at risk from flows of blistering gas and debris if the dome collapses. Gov. Deborah Barnes Jones said she would sign an evacuation order Monday making it illegal for people to remain in the area.

The blast, accompanied by increased seismic rumbling, released gases and steam from inside a lava dome that has grown rapidly over the last week, said Dr. Vicky Hards, director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.

"I think it was a warning call ... of what it can do," Hards said.

The explosion around sunrise also sent a flow of volcanic material cascading two miles down the northwest flank, but did not immediately threaten any of the British Caribbean island's 5,000 inhabitants, Hards said. Sirens alerted people to listen to the radio for updates.

"People in the affected area know who they are and should work urgently on packing up and arranging for alternative accommodations," Barnes Jones said in a radio address.

Only "a handful" of residents were believed to still be living in the threatened area, said Mark Twigg, head of the governor's office.

"This causes genuine hardship for people who have to leave, and this is taken lightly by nobody," he said.

The volcano's latest burst of activity began on Dec. 24. Glowing streaks of red from the pyroclastic flows have created nighttime spectacles visible across much of the island. The volcano's rising dome remained in place after Monday's explosion, raising fears of a bigger event soon.

The Soufriere Hills volcano became active in 1995, and more than half the territory's 12,000 inhabitants moved away. An eruption in 1997 buried much of the south, including the capital of Plymouth, and killed 19 people.

Since then, the mountainous, teardrop-shaped island has gone on a building binge. A new city center is planned for Little Bay, the future capital, in northwest Montserrat. The island has a new airport to replace the one that was engulfed by lava flows and a 700-seat concert hall. A new parliament, courthouse and cricket field are planned.

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