A long-simmering volcano exploded with a series of powerful eruptions outside one of Guatemala’s most famous tourist attractions on Thursday, hurling thick clouds of ash nearly two miles (three kilometres) high, spewing rivers of lava down its flanks and prompting evacuation orders for more than 33,000 people from surrounding communities.

Guatemala’s head of emergency evacuations, Sergio Cabanas, said the evacuees were ordered to leave some 17 villages around the Volcan del Fuego, which sits about six miles southwest (16 kilometres) of the colonial city of Antigua, home to 45,000 people. The ash was blowing south-southeast and authorities said the tourist centre of the country was not currently in danger, although they expected the eruption to last for at least 12 more hours.

Authorities set up a shelter at an elementary school in Santa Lucia, the town closest to the volcano, and by Thursday night people had started trickling in. Most were women and children carrying blankets and going into bare classrooms.

Miriam Carumaco, 28, arrived to the shelter along with 16 members of her family.

“We heard loud thunder and then it got dark and ash began falling,” Ms Carumaco said. “It sounded like a pressure cooker that wouldn’t stop.”

Ms Carumaco said parents sent their children to school despite the darkening skies, but that classes were later cancelled and teachers walked them home.

The emergency agency said lava rolled nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) down slopes billowing with ash around the Volcan del Fuego, a 12,346-foot-high (3,763-meter-high) volcano whose name translates as “Volcano of Fire.”

“A paroxysm of an eruption is taking place, a great volcanic eruption, with strong explosions and columns of ash,” said Gustavo Chicna, a volcanologist with the National Institute of Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology. He said cinders spewing from the volcano were settling a half-inch thick in some places.

There was a red alert, the highest level, south and southeast of the mountain, where, Mr Chicna said, “it’s almost in total darkness.”

By Thursday evening, the ash plume had decreased to a little more than a mile high, partly due to rain, which diminished the potential risk to aviation, said Jorge Giron, a government volcanologist. He said ash continued to fall heavily, however, and advised residents near the volcano but outside of evacuation zones to clean their water systems before using them, and to not leave their homes because of the ash.

Teresa Marroquin, disaster coordinator for the Guatemalan Red Cross, said the organization had set up 10 emergency shelters and was sending hygiene kits and water.

“There are lots of respiratory problems and eye problems,” she said.

Many of those near the volcano are indigenous Kakchikeles people who live in relatively poor and isolated communities, and authorities said they expected to encounter difficulties in evacuating all the affected people from the area.

Officials in the Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, said they were monitoring the situation in case winds drove ash toward Mexico.

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