Yogyakarta. Thousands of families returned to their villages on Monday even as scientists warned that Mount Merapi remained a threat and more bodies were found buried in the ash.
Carrying their belongings on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, more than 30,000 people left shelters after the government reduced the size of the exclusion zone around the volcano in some districts.
But officials said the country’s most active volcano remained a severe threat as search teams pulled 17 more bodies from the ash that seared swaths of the Central Java countryside in a series of eruptions starting on Oct. 26. The death toll is now 259.
“The eruption process is still ongoing but the intensity has reduced significantly. But the status is still alert,” volcanologist Subandrio said.
A spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, said about 367,000 people were still living in shelters on Monday, about 30,000 fewer than on Sunday.
Most of the returnees were from Boyolali, Klaten and Magelang districts where the danger zone has been reduced.
“We expect more to go home today,” he added.
With Mount Merapi calming down in the past few days, authorities in Klaten and Boyolali on Sunday set the danger zone back to 10 kilometers from the crater.
It was set at 20 kilometers after a major eruption on Nov. 5.
In Magelang, which first felt the brunt of the volcano’s fury, the danger zone was brought back to 15 kilometers, while in the hard-hit Sleman district in Yogyakarta, it was kept at 20 kilometers.
“We are doing our best to persuade them to remain in the safety of the shelters as we are afraid some of them are heading into the danger zone,” Sutopo said.
He said the BNPB was working with the military, police and a band of volunteers to clean ash-covered houses.
“We do not want the people to return in a rush, especially vulnerable pregnant women, children and the elderly,” he said.
Surono, the head of the Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Agency (PVMBG), said there was no plan to lower Merapi’s alert from Level 4, the highest, even though volcanic activity had been declining.
In Klaten, 9,339 evacuees left their shelters to return home after the authorities pushed back the danger zone.
“The residents are beginning to return to their homes on the slopes of Merapi because the danger zone has been narrowed and they feel the mountain has calmed down and is not a danger to them anymore,” said Joko Rukminto, the coordinator of a Klaten evacuation camp.
He said 84,000 people remained in shelters at 329 locations in the district.
The exodus back to villages on Merapi’s slopes, he added, is likely to continue despite warnings from officials.
Sunarna, the Klaten district chief, said that although the danger zone had been reduced, he was urging residents to remain at the shelters because the status of the volcano was unchanged.
In Boyolali, about 8,800 people from three subdistricts remained at the 12 shelters in the district, while 1,500 people were known to have left to return to their homes, said Syamsuddin, the district’s coordinator for disaster management.
In Magelang, 3,450 evacuees had returned to 22 villages that were now outside the danger zone, said the head of the disaster management unit at the district administration, Heri Prawoto. About 80,000 people are still in shelters, he added.