Thousands of families returned to their villages on Monday even as scientists warned Mount Merapi volcano remained a severe threat and more bodies were found buried in the ash.
Carrying their belongings on motorcycles and pickup trucks, more than 30,000 people had left emergency shelters after the government reduced a 20-kilometre exclusion zone by as much as half in certain districts.
But officials said Indonesia’s most active volcano remained a severe threat as search teams pulled another 17 bodies from the ash that seared swathes of the central Java countryside in a series of eruptions starting on October 26.
“The eruption process is still ongoing but the intensity has reduced significantly. The status is still alert,” volcanologist Subandrio said.
Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said 367,548 people were still living in shelters on Monday, about 30,000 fewer than on Sunday.
Most of the returnees were from Boyolali, Klaten and Magelang districts, where the danger zone had been reduced.
“We expect more to go home today,” he added.
Mount Merapi, a sacred landmark whose name translates as “Mountain of Fire,” had killed 259 people as of Monday’s count.
The toll rose as teams reached deeper into the danger zone and found the dead strewn in the grey ash where they had been caught in blistering jets of gas and rock known as pyroclastic flows.
Most died when the volcano exploded on November 5 in its biggest eruption in more than a century.
Merapi spewed clouds of gas and ash as high as four kilometres Sunday but volcanologist Subandrio said this was “small compared to the 14 kilometres in previous days.”
“It’s safe for people to go home as long as they stay outside the danger zone,” he added.
The government maintained the 20-kilometre danger zone for Sleman district, on the southern slopes of the mountain, as “there’s still a probability of heat clouds going in that direction”, he said.
Merapi is one of dozens of active volcanoes in the country that straddles major tectonic fault lines between the Pacific and Indian oceans.
It killed around 1,300 people in 1930 but experts say the current eruptions are its biggest since 1872.