Angel Calla shrugs as he considers an eruption of El Misti, the volcano with a tuft of snow on top that overlooks his convenience store.

"It will take time for the lava to get here. We'd have time to escape," he said.

Calla, 52, was one of the first people to settle the ramshackle San Luis shantytown 25 years ago on the arid foothills below El Misti's 19,101-foot summit.

"I'm not scared," he added. "If I die, I die."

A French scientist and some Arequipa officials, however, are more concerned. They warn that El Misti, an enduring symbol of Peru's second-largest city, is due for a major eruption that could have disastrous consequences for some of the 1 million people who live below it.

They say that even a moderate eruption from El Misti, which exploded at least twice before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and has released smoke and gases more than a dozen times since, could melt ice and send deadly mudslides down its slopes.

Jean-Claude Thouret, a volcanologist at Blaise-Pascal University in France, has studied El Misti since 1994. In December 2001, he published a study in the Geological Society of America Bulletin warning that even a moderate eruption will mean "considerable hazards" for Arequipa.

People have lived in the Arequipa area since ancient times. Members of the Inca empire, who worshipped snowcapped mountains and volcanoes, left offerings at El Misti to placate the deity. They included human sacrifices.

Modern Arequipa has treated the volcano with less reverence. For decades authorities have allowed the city to expand directly toward the volcano as landless peasants from the rural Andes have flocked to Arequipa in search of work.

Hundreds of thousands of people settling in the path of inevitable disaster has gone largely unnoticed in Peru, where safety precautions are often ignored. Almost 300 people were killed just over a year ago in a blaze at an unregulated fireworks market in Lima, the capital.

Psychologist Dora Herrera of the University of Lima said the disregard for safety comes from a lack of rules, lax enforcement and the ingrained practice of paying bribes to avoid compliance.

"We have become accustomed to not respecting rules and regulations that in many cases are necessary," she said.

San Luis is one of dozens of poor neighborhoods that have sprouted on Arequipa's eastern flank near El Misti's base. Crude wooden crosses mark a cemetery on a nearby hill as minivans whisk residents to central Arequipa.

El Misti provides a picturesque backdrop to Arequipa's central plaza, which is fronted by a white-stone cathedral 10 miles from the volcano's crater. Travel agencies lining the plaza offer two-day treks to the volcano's summit.

Disaster management officials in Arequipa credit the work of Thouret and other scientists with making people aware of the potential danger stewing within Misti.

In their study, Thouret and his team documented a major eruption around 2050 B.C. that spewed pumice as far as 15 miles away. Another smaller eruption around 1440 A.D., in Inca times, dispersed an inch or so of ash across the area.

Since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century, historians have chronicled what may have been four more minor eruptions, the volcanologists found. Thouret and his team also identified nine reports of smoke or gases rising from El Misti -- the most recent in 1948.

As recently as June 2001, an earthquake in Arequipa caused smoke and gas to increase briefly at the volcano's crater, according to a report from the Geological Society of America.

"The possible impact of Misti on Arequipa is as worrisome as that of Vesuvius" near Naples, Thouret said.

Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and buried the Roman town of Pompeii under ash, freezing it in time. Archaeologists are still excavating the ruins, which are one of Italy's top tourist attractions.

According to Thouret's study of the geological evidence, at least 220,000 people in Arequipa are at risk from potential flows of rock and volcanic debris, mudslides and flash floods.

"Misti's eruption is probable, but we cannot forecast the magnitude of the future eruption unless we detect changes in the volcano's behavior a few weeks or a few months in advance," Thouret said.

Mario Paredes, a Civil Defense Institute engineer, said an eruption could push an infernal wave of 800-degree air down the volcano's slopes, incinerating anything in its path.

Paredes said Civil Defense has used Thouret's studies to design a "risk map" of the city and corresponding zoning regulations. He admitted that the costs of even a practice drill for evacuating more than 200,000 people are tremendous.

Francisco Ampuero, Civil Defense's liaison in the Arequipa municipality, said planning for disasters like a volcanic eruption takes a back seat in cash-strapped governments in Peru.

In the past, mayors have hastily granted land titles to poor squatters near El Misti to head off protests and other social unrest, Ampuero said. Economic interests like real estate development also come into play.

"There is a city planning department, but no one pays any attention to it," Ampuero said. "It happens throughout Peru. People just don't give priority to prevention."

In Colombia to the north, scientists warned people of the dangers of living near the snowcapped Nevado del Ruiz volcano before its 1985 eruption, the most deadly in modern South American history. The eruption unleashed mudslides that killed at least 23,000 people living in towns located along rivers running away from Nevado del Ruiz's peak.

Jose Chavez, an archaeologist at Arequipa's Catholic University who has written a book about El Misti's eruptions, has lobbied city officials to recognize the potential dangers of the volcano.

Chavez discovered two Inca tombs with six bodies at El Misti's crater, sacrifices to the apus, or Andean mountain gods, that were part of the Incas' disaster prevention.

"Of course, these days we're not going to make human sacrifices," Chavez said. "These are different times."

A million people live in the shadow of El Misti, which some volcanologists say is due to erupt.