IMAGE: Philippines volcano
Mike Alquinto  /  AP
A soldier wearing a Santa Claus hat distributes rice and canned goods to children at an evacuation center in Legazpi city, Albay province, about 300 miles southeast of Manila, on Tuesday.
updated 12/23/2009 2:10:30 PM ET 2009-12-23T19:10:30

Police and soldiers donned Santa hats and red clown noses and belted out songs in crammed evacuation centers in hopes of keeping 47,000 displaced residents from sneaking back to their homes on the slopes of a lava-spilling volcano.

Despite the risk of an imminent explosive eruption of the 8,070-foot Mayon, which has been oozing lava and blasting ash for a week, some residents weary of temporary shelters are conspiring to go back to their abandoned villages for traditional Christmas Eve family gatherings. Others want to retrieve their livestock or harvest crops.

"We are not used to spending Christmas in the evacuation center," said Ramon Ayala, 48, whose home lies within a five-mile zone around Mayon that authorities emptied last week when the volcano started rumbling.

"We and many others plan to spend Christmas Eve in our homes," Ayala said.

Authorities are determined to make sure it does not happen.

"I have set a very high bar, which is zero casualty," said Gov. Joey Salceda of Albay province in the central Philippines. "If there's a lull and you step back into the danger zone, you'll immediately be escorted out."

Entertaining evacuees
Mayon volcano has erupted nearly 40 times over 400 years, sending people packing for months at a time. But never has it happened during the most important event in the Philippine calendar — Christmas time, which is associated with family, food, friends and songs.

To keep the blues away, dozens of police officers dressed in Santa hats and clown costumes, crooned songs and led dancing to a popular pop tune in one school. In another area, soldiers handed toys to children.

The government tapped police, army, navy and air force personnel to organize bingo and other games, show movies on big projectors, hold concerts and Bible readings — "anything that will entertain the evacuees," said Jukes Nunez, a provincial disaster management official.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo visited the area Wednesday.

Although Mayon has been in a mild eruption phase since last week, chief state volcanologist Renato Solidum said it may be getting ready for something more powerful. But he said the explosion would not be as big as that of Mount Pinatubo in the northern Philippines in 1991, considered one of the biggest eruptions of the last century. About 800 people were killed.

'Hazardous' eruption?
Mayon shot up columns of ash at least 66 times in the last 24 hours, one reaching almost a mile into the cloudy sky, accompanied by 1,051 volcanic earthquakes — slightly less than the previous day, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said.

State volcanologist Ed Laguerta said lava ejected since last week amounted to nearly 706 million cubic feet — less than half of what Mayon spilled during the last eruption of 2006. Lava flows reached about three miles from the crater.

"The earthquakes and tremors, the gas output and those rumbling and booming sounds and series of mild ash explosions ... are the parameters which point to a higher percentage of a hazardous eruption happening," Laguerta said.

Solidum said Mayon's alert level, currently at one step below a hazardous eruption, will be raised if taller ash columns appear together with the rolling of rocks and ash.

The 47,000 evacuees account for nearly all residents living along Mayon's steep slopes, but soldiers were still checking villages to make sure no holdouts were hiding in their homes, said Nunez.

Residents who attempt to sneak back will be stopped at checkpoints, he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Filipinos flee oozing volcano

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  1. Lava cascades down the slopes of Mayon volcano in a continuing mild eruption as viewed from Legazpi city, Albay province, about 300 miles southeast of Manila, Philippines, on December 25. Over the last 24 hours, 871 volcanic earthquakes and at least 96 ash explosions were monitored. Nearly 47,000 residents at the foot of the volcano have evacuated their homes and moved to schools designated as evacuation centres, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Councils. (Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A performer, dressed as a clown, entertains Mayon volcano evacuees at an evacuation center in Legazpi city, Albay province southeast of Manila, Philippines on Dec. 25 Food, clowns, gifts and games brought cheer to some 47,000 Filipinos who spent Christmas in crammed evacuation centers around lava-spilling Mayon volcano. Weary evacuees are thankful, but said they can't wait to return to their homes. (Bullit Marquez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mayon volcano evacuees are entertained by soldiers wearing Santa hats at an evacuation center in Legazpi city on Wednesday. Tens of thousands of evacuees are expected to spend Christmas in evacuation centers in anticipation of an eruption. (Bullit Marquez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A column of ash shoots into the sky during a mild eruption of the cloud-covered Mayon volcano on Dec. 23. (Romeo Ranoco / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mayon volcano evacuees do their laundry at a creek near an evacuation center in Guiobatan township, Albay province, about 300 miles southeast of Manila, Philippines on Dec. 22. (Bullit Marquez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. This NASA Earth Observatory photo shows the Mayon Volcano in the Philippines. The volcano is considered a major landmark in Albay Province. Located 6 miles from the Gulf of Albay, it rises 8,077 feet above the gulf. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Villagers living in the foothills of the rumbling Mayon volcano ride on a truck after local officials ask them to evacuate the town of Guinobatan in Albay province on Dec. 21. Scientists warn that powerful booms indicate a major eruption is imminent. (Ted Aljibe / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Young evacuees living in the foothills of the Mayon volcano pray during a special class at a temporary shelter in a village near the town of Guinobatan in Albay province on Dec. 21. (Ted Aljibe / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Catholics attend a dawn Mass in Legazpi, Philippines, as lava cascades down the slopes of the Mayon volcano on Dec. 17. Authorities in Albay province have declared a round-the-clock ban on anyone entering within a five-mile danger zone around the peak, which is spewing lava and ash. Security forces have ordered the forcible evacuation of thousands of residents who refused to leave their farms near the volcano, officials said. (Dan Amaranto / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents rest in a classroom on Dec. 17 following several small eruptions of ash and lava. The Mayon volcano has blown its top nearly 40 times in 400 years, prompting worried authorities to order more than 30,000 people into shelters. (Bullit Marquez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Lava flows from the crater of the cone-shaped, 8,070-foot Mayon volcano on Dec. 17. The county's most active volcano began oozing lava two days earlier. (Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Villagers living on the slopes of Mayon volcano ride in a military vehicle after being evacuated from their homes in Camalig, Philippines, on Dec. 15. (Erik de Castro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Filipino villagers ride in a military truck as they flee the five-mile danger zone around the Mayon volcano on Dec. 15. (Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Mayon volcano spews plumes of ash into the air on Dec. 15. (Charism Sayat / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Residents watch the Mayon volcano from a safe distance on Lingon Hill on Dec. 15. (Erik De Castro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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