The Chaiten volcano spewed light ash on a nearly deserted village Saturday, two days after its first eruption in thousands of years.
No more than 45 of Chaiten's 4,500 residents remained in what looked like a ghost town, its streets, houses, cars and trees draped with a thick layer of light-colored ash, Interior Minister Edmundo Perez said.
Those who decided to stay after Thursday's eruption could be seen wearing face masks outdoors in Chaiten, 750 miles south of the capital, Santiago. Street lights were illuminated under darkened skies.
Just six miles away, the volcano belched fat smoke plumes that at times rose as high as 12 miles into the air, the government's Emergency Bureau said.
Winds carried the ash to other towns in the region and across the Andes mountains to Argentina, where two airlines suspended flights due to poor visibility.
The Chaiten volcano has "probably been dormant for about 9,000 or 10,000 years but that's not unusual," said Charles Stern, a professor of volcanology at the University of Colorado who specializes in Andes volcanoes.
Authorities evacuated most of Chaiten's residents to schools and churches in the nearby cities of Puerto Montt and Castro.
"It is very difficult to predict when the people will be able to return," Perez said. "This situation can last for days, or weeks - or longer."
Some residents were pessimistic.
"This could be the end of our town," community leader Leonardo Maureira told Radio Cooperativa of Santiago. "We have worked an entire life here and now all we could do was to put a few things in a bag and depart, leaving everything behind."
Others decided to stay.
"We have to protect our investment," said Nelson Alderete, a small shopkeeper, as he watched his wife and small daughter board a boat to Puerto Montt. "But if things get really ugly, I will leave."
Chaiten Mayor Jose Fritis said the town will not die.
"This has been a historic catastrophe for us, but we will rebuild from the ashes," he said.