At least 56,000 Filipino villagers have fled from Mount Mayon as it spewed fountains of lava nearly half a mile into the sky on Tuesday, and authorities warn the volcano could erupt violently within hours.

“It sounded like an airplane that’s about to land,” Quintin Velardo, a farmer who lives five miles from the volcano, told the Associated Press from an evacuation center Tuesday, as Mayon continued to blast molten rock and a two-mile-high column of ash floated above the province of Albay.

Officials had raised the alert level to four on Monday, an indication that a hazardous eruption is imminent. Nevertheless, Velardo told the AP, he needed to return to his village to rescue his livestock. Minutes after he spoke, Mayon coughed up another jet of ash.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has declared a danger zone anywhere within eight kilometers, or nearly five miles, of the volcano. The agency captured footage of bright orange lava flows on Sunday night; ash blew and fell across Guinobatan, Camalig, Oas, Polangui and Iriga City on Monday.

The AP reported at least three major blasts Tuesday and said a catastrophic eruption could be hours away.

Renato Solidum, the agency’s director, described two possible scenarios during a news conference Monday. Mayon will either continue to ooze lava with small eruptions in between — like what happened in 2006 and 2009 — or we’re seeing the early stages of a major, and far more catastrophic, blast or pyroclastic flow, a deadly combination of hot lava blocks, pumice, ash and volcanic gas that barrels down a volcanic slope and can devastate residential areas.

Fiery Philippine volcano Mount Mayon forces thousands to evacuate

With Legazpi City, Philippines, in the foreground, Mount Mayon erupts anew at sunset. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

Compounding the threat is what’s called lahar, a potentially deadly mud flow of volcanic material that can happen even without a major explosion. Solidum said heavy rain could drive mudflow in the region and cause landslides near already swollen bodies of water.

The AP reported that by Tuesday, more than 56,000 people had been evacuated to nearly 50 evacuation centers across the country. They include families in areas far from the danger zone but who could be affected by mudflow. No one had been reported killed by Tuesday, according to the AP, even as rocks and debris cascaded down the mountain’s slopes.

Authorities said it could be weeks before families can return to their homes, although the AP reported that some have been sneaking back to check on their homes. To deter residents from returning, provincial authorities have recommended cutting off electricity and water within the danger zone.

“If pyroclastic flows hit people, there is no chance for life,” Cedric Daep, a disaster response official, said in a news conference. “Let us not violate the natural law.”

Classes in several cities and municipalities and flights to and from some areas of the province have also been suspended, Albay Gov. Al Francis Bichara announced Monday on Facebook. Bichara also urged people to stay indoors and wear face masks.

Officials have allotted about 5.5 million pesos (about $100,000) worth of assistance for evacuees. It includes tens of thousands of ash masks and sacks of rice, the AP reported.

Mayon first showed signs of unrest Jan. 13, when the volcano produced a grayish ash plume, about a mile and a half high, that drifted southwest and sent ash down on nearby areas. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology raised its alert level to two the following day and then to three hours later.

A state of calamity was declared last Tuesday in Albay in the southeastern part of Luzon island, about 300 miles from the capital, Manila.

Mayon is the most active of the Philippines’ 22 active volcanoes. It draws tourists because of its symmetrical cone shape, which rises more than 8,000 feet above the Albay Gulf. But it has erupted 47 times since 1616. The deadliest, in 1814, killed more than 1,200 people and buried a village. The most recent deadly event was a two-month-long eruption in 1993, when more than 70 people were killed.

Velardo, the farmer who was planning to reenter the danger zone to save his cow, told the AP he had lived beneath the volcano since he was a child.

“I tell my grandchildren to study hard so they can live elsewhere without a volcano to keep an eye on all your life,” he said.

Smoke and ash erupted from the Philippines's Mayon volcano on Jan. 22. Officials raised the alert level to a four, meaning an eruption could be imminent. (Randall Lorayes)

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