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updated 6/6/2011 5:28:19 PM ET 2011-06-06T21:28:19

An erupting Chilean volcano sent a towering plume of ash across South America on Monday, forcing thousands from their homes, grounding airline flights in southern Argentina and coating ski resorts with a gritty layer of dust instead of snow.

Booming explosions echoed across the Andes as toxic gases belched up from a three-mile-long (five-kilometer long) fissure in the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex — a ridge between two craters just west of the Chilean-Argentine border that began erupting Saturday.

Winds blew a six-mile-high (10-kilometer-high) cloud of ash all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and even into southern Buenos Aires province, hundreds of miles to the northeast.

Authorities in Chile went house to house, trying to persuade stragglers near the volcano to leave because of an increasing danger of toxic gas and flash floods. By Monday, about 4,000 people had been evacuated from more than 22 communities. They began fleeing as swarms of earthquakes Saturday heralded the eruption and hundreds more fled Monday to shelters farther away.

Some refused to leave, wanting to protect their homes and livestock. Chile's verdant lakes region is a center for dairy farming, with more than 9,000 cows and sheep.

Deputy Interior Minister Rodrigo Ubilla said about 50 families in the Rininahue area refused to abandon their homes.

"Everything is prepared with shelter and transportation for them to immediately leave the danger zone," added Vicente Nunez, director of Chile's emergency preparedness office, urging them to leave.

Just north of the complex of volcanoes, the city of Futrono and the communities of Lago Ranco and Entre Rios were particularly vulnerable to flash floods. Some people also refused to leave Mantilhue, along the Rio Bueno, or "Good River," just six miles (10 kilometers) from the eruption. And while the evacuation order wasn't yet mandatory, a group of Mapuche Indians said they would seek the regional governor's authorization to enter the area to pray for the volcano to stop erupting.

Enrique Valdivieso, the director of Chile's National Geology and Mines Service, said the fissure was belching toxic gases and material that could clog rivers and force them to overflow.

Spectacular displays of lightning flashed in the volcanic clouds during the weekend, and while the amount of ash falling east of the volcano subsided significantly by Monday, experts said it was too early to predict how long it will take before the volcano falls silent.

Volcanic dust coated ski slopes above San Carlos de Bariloche and Villa la Angostura two weeks before the official start of the winter skiing season. The resorts' trade group said it was too early to say how it would affect the local economy, but for now, residents were told to stay indoors and tourists were asked not to come.

The Cordon Caulle is nearly 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) south of Santiago, in Chile's lakes region, just west of Bariloche. Authorities went on alert before the eruption Saturday when as many as 240 tremors an hour struck the region.

The volcano's last major eruption was in 1960, shortly after a 9.5 magnitude earthquake, the most powerful in recorded history, struck Chile.

Some scientists have said that last year's 8.8 quake in Chile increased the likelihood of volcanic activity due to shifts in pressure along the Earth's tectonic plates.

The ash cloud first blew over Argentina and then circled back over Chile on Sunday. By Monday, however, prevailing winds had spread the ash eastward as far as Bahia Blanca, in southern Buenos Aires province on the Argentine coast.

During the weekend, the volcano spat out pumice rocks nearly eight inches (20 centimeters) in diameter.

Because airborne ash can severely damage jet engines, all flights between Buenos Aires and the Andean resorts of Bariloche, Esquel and Chapelco were canceled until June 12. Seven other airports in Argentina were closed through Thursday, effectively isolating the southern Patagonia region from the rest of the country. Aerolineas Argentinas also cancelled nighttime flights well to the north of the volcanos, from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile, and Mendoza, Argentina, as a precaution.

LAN airlines suspended more than 35 flights from Chile to southern Argentina, and some highways in Argentina also were closed.

Across Argentina's southern midsection, schools were closed, routine government work was suspended and elective surgery were canceled as well.

Also closed was the nearby border crossing of Cardenal Samore, where a twisting mountain road climbs through stunning arid valleys on the Argentina side before dropping through lush green forests and fields in Chile. Even when skies cleared in places Monday, the area was draped in an abrasive gray blanket.

The 11-mile-long (17-kilometer-long) Cordon Caulle rises 5,900-feet (1,800 meters) above sea level between the Pueyehue and Nevada volcanoes, above a connected complex of molten rock. Chile has more than 3,000 volcanoes along its Andean spine, and 500 of these are considered geologically active. About 60 Of these have erupted in the last 450 years.

___

Associated Press writers Almudena Calatrava and Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this story. Vergara can be reached at www.twitter.com/evergaraap

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Volcano eruption in Chile

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  1. The Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcano on Sunday, June 13. The volcano erupted on June 4, sending clouds of ash high into the atmosphere. Within 48 hours of eruption, the plume measured 50,000 feet above the Earth, high enough to pass above the weather that usually breaks up lower lying ash plumes. At this high altitude, the ash entered the jetstream, which carried it rapidly eastward. (MODIS Terra satellite / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A French tourist sits on her luggage at the Jorge Newbery Airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on June 7 after her flight to Uruguay was cancelled due to an ash cloud from Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano chain. The wind carried volcanic ash across the Andes to Argentina resulting in the closure of six airports. The volcano dormant for decades erupted in south-central Chile on June 4 (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The Gol-Gol River in Chile is covered with volcanic ash from the erupting Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano on June 7. (Alvaro Vidal / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A man walks on a road covered with ash from the volcano in Puyehue, Chile on June 7. (Ian Salas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A member of the Chilean armed forces pushes a car on a road covered with ash at the Cardenal Samore border pass between Argentina and Chile on June 7. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A traffic sign is covered with ash in Puyehue on June 7. (Ian Salas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Residents pass army trucks as they are evacuated from the area around the erupting volcano in Pichico, near Lago Ranco, on June 7. Around 3,500 people were evacuated as the volcano sent a towering plume of ash into the air. (Carlos Succo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A plume of light-coloured ash stretches along the edge of the Andes in this satellite image acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra spacecraft on the morning of June 6, as the eruption at the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano chain continues. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Residents of Rininahue look at a plume of smoke and ash merging from the volcano near Lago Ranco on June 6. The volcano was calm on Monday, two days after raining down ash and forcing thousands to flee, although the cloud of soot it had belched out still darkened skies as far away as Argentina. (Carlos Succo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A pumice rock belched out by the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle chain volcano is shown near the Cardenal Samore border pass between Argentina and Chile on June 6. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. An aircraft is stranded on the tarmac at an airport in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, on June 6. A volcano dormant for decades erupted in south-central Chile on Saturday, belching an ash cloud more than 6 miles high that blew over the Andes and carpeted a resort town in neighboring Argentina. (Chiwi Giambirtone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. An inhabitant of the region near the erupting volcano looks out from a shelter in Entrelagos town on June 6, after residents were evacuated. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Rosehip covered in ash from Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano chain are seen in the mountain resort of San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina on June 6. (Patricio Rodriguez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A man covers his face as he walks through an ash-covered street of the mountain resort of San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina on June 6. (Patricio Rodriguez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. An overview of the ash-covered mountain resort of San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina on June 6. (Patricio Rodriguez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A man removes ash that fell on the roof of his house in Villa Campanario, near San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, on June 6. (Francisco Ramos Mejia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A view of the ash plume at sunset above the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano chain near Entrelagos on June 5. (Carlos Gutierrez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An electric storm lights up the sky on June 5, after a volcano in the Caulle Cordon area of southern Chile erupted violently, billowing smoke and ash high into the sky and prompting more than 3,500 people to evacuate. (Daniel Basualto / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A giant ash cloud rises after the eruption of the volcano in the Los Rios region on June 5. (Ian Salas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Lightning strikes above the Caulle Cordon volcanic chain on June 5. It was not immediately clear which of the chain's four volcanoes had erupted because of ash cover and weather conditions. The chain last saw a major eruption in 1960. (Francisco Negroni / Agencia Uno via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. An eerie show of lightning is seen above the volcanic chain on June 5. Chile is home to about 2,000 volcanoes, second only to Indonesia. Some 50 to 60 are on record as having erupted, and 500 are potentially active. (Francisco Negroni / Agencia Uno via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Lightning is seen amid a cloud of ash on June 5. Chile said the explosion that sparked the eruption also produced a column of gas six miles high. (Claudio Santana / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A cloud of ash three miles wide rises into the sky on June 5. (Ian Salas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Policemen gather as smoke and ash rise from the volcanic chain on June 5. Most of the residents in 22 nearby settlements evacuated when the eruption began on Saturday afternoon. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A car is covered in volcanic ash in San Carlos de Bariloche, southern Argentina, on June 5. The wind carried ash across the Andes to Argentina, dusting this tourist town, which had to close its airport. (Alfredo Leiva / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Ash dusts the fairways of the Llao Llao Hotel golf course in Bariloche, Argentina, on June 5. (Francisco Ramos Mejia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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