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Nooxious Gas Cloaks Philippine Volcano

A dense white cloud of noxious gases shrouded the Mayon volcano ...

A dense white cloud of noxious gases shrouded the Mayon volcano Thursday and precariously perched ash piles swelled with rain as farmers toiled near its foot.

Many of the 41,000 evacuees returned home for the day despite scientists warning that the steaming wet volcanic ash could cascade down on populated areas. They also said Mayon likely will erupt anew within two weeks.

A helicopter ride early Thursday halfway up the 8,118-foot volcano revealed a rock face lined with fresh scorches, gouges and pockmarks.

The crater has spewed 180 million cubic feet of lava, heated to 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit, and hundred of boulders in five days of eruption.

Steam pouring from within the bubbling magma hid the summit Thursday in a cloak of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrosulfuric acid.

Scientists said heavy rain late Wednesday and early Thursday added to the weight of large ash deposits on the side of the volcano and could trigger a mudslide, threatening the huts on the vegetable fields below.

But many residents of the 18 villages in the volcano's five-mile danger radius returned to tend fields, feed water buffalos and check belongings. Most returned at night to the 28 evacuation centers set up in schools, churches and public buildings.

Due to the daily forays into the danger zone, the open-air market of Legazpi City teemed Thursday with the large radishes, carrots and cabbages that thrive in Mayon's rich soil and are exported as far as Manila, 205 miles to the north.

Volcanologist Ed Villacorte said sulfur-dioxide emissions reached 4,000 tons daily Thursday from 3,600 tons on Wednesday in a sign of magma movement. He said Mayon, one of the Philippines' most active volcanoes, issues 500 tons of sulfur-dioxide emissions a day when it is not erupting.

Boulders 70 to 100 feet across continued to rocket out of the volcano and tumble down its slopes.

But Villacorte said the number of seismic tremors dropped Thursday, making immediate volcanic activity difficult to predict.

The city of Legazpi, its horizon dominated by Mayon, continued routine life but failed to profit from the tourism that accompanied previous eruptions.

An eruption in February 2000, which forced the evacuation of 68,000 people, came in peak tourism season and drew foreigners and Filipinos alike to Albay province.

But this year's eruption, in off-peak season, failed to help the poor province. The provincial tourism department said that as of Wednesday night only 279 visitors - including four foreigners - stayed in hotels in the province's two cities. Hotel occupancy rates were around 20 percent.

Airports and a tourist center near the volcano were closed after Sunday's major eruption, which blew ash clouds more than nine miles high and hurled red-hot boulders yards into the air.

Mayon, a well-known tourist attraction because of its near-perfect conical shape, has erupted at least 47 times since 1616. An ash mudflow buried a town and killed 1,200 people in the worst known eruption in 1814.