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Debris litters area after Alaska volcano erupts

Explosion throws ash cloud at least 50,000 feet high

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Associated Press / July 14, 2008

ANCHORAGE - A volcano erupted with little warning on a remote island in Alaska over the weekend, sending residents of a nearby ranch fleeing from falling ash and volcanic rock.

The Okmok Caldera began erupting Saturday morning, just hours after seismologists at the Alaska Volcano Center began detecting a series of small tremors.

The explosion flung an ash cloud at least 50,000 feet high, said geophysicist Steve McNutt.

Ten people, including three children, fled from Fort Glenn, a private cattle ranch 6 miles south of the volcano on Umnak Island, in the western Aleutians about 860 miles southwest of Anchorage. They were later picked up by the fishing boat Tara Gaila, which responded to a Coast Guard request for emergency assistance. The boat brought them to Dutch Harbor, about 65 miles away, where they were staying at a hotel. There were no reported injuries.

The ranch residents had managed to call military police on Kodiak Island on a satellite phone before losing their connection, according to the Coast Guard.

At the same time it issued the general request for assistance from boats in the area, the Coast Guard diverted the cutters Jarvis and Melon to head toward the scene from their patrols in the Bering Sea.

A rescue helicopter from the Melon responded but had to land in Dutch Harbor after flying through some volcanic ash, causing some damage to the aircraft, the Coast Guard said. Coast Guard Petty Officer Lee Goldsmith said those at the ranch reported rock and ash falling around them.

Okmok is 60 miles west of the busy fishing port of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. Ash was reported falling in the region, McNutt said. Two planned flights from Unalaska were canceled in response to the eruption, said Jerry Lucas, a spokesman for PenAir, the primary airliner serving the area.

The 3,500-foot volcano last erupted in 1997, according to McNutt. The volcano has shown signs of increased activity during the last few months, he said.

Previous eruptions have typically produced lava flows, but the volcano center could not immediately determine whether that had occurred this time, McNutt said.

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