Ecuador's Tungurahua volcano is poised for a major eruption, a volcanologist said Wednesday. Authorities last week evacuated 10 villages from its western slopes as a precaution.

©AP Photo
Ecuador's Tungurahua Volcano

Patricia Mothes, a U.S. expert on volcanoes, said the 16,575-foot volcano, located 80 miles southeast of Quito, "is preparing to generate, in days or weeks, a great eruption."

She said that could mean pyroclastic flows - blasts of volcanic material "that descend at high speeds and burn everything in their way."

Tungurahua, which has been active since 1999, has been freeing a high level of energy since Dec. 22, Mothes told The Associated Press by telephone.

"We have indications that there may be important volumes of magma which would be liberated in an eruption," she said.

Juan Salazar, the mayor of Penipe, one of 10 villages evacuated last week from the western slopes of Tungurahua, said 3,000 acres of crops and pasture have been damaged by ash from the volcano.

There have been no lava flows since the volcano began spitting out ash in December, he said.

Villagers return by day to tend to their crops and farm animals but stay in temporary shelters outside the danger zone at night.

Salazar said the government has decided to provide new houses for 286 families that cannot return to their homes at night. He said the families would receive the keys to the houses on Feb. 9 along with small plots for growing crops.

Tungurahua erupted in July and August of 2006, causing at least four deaths. The eruptions forced the evacuation of thousands of villagers and damaged thousands of acres of crops buried under tons of ashes and lava flows.