Boar Hunt Fire Mistaken For Volcanic Activity On Tongan Island

admin's picture

Smoke from brush fire may have led to flight cancellation

By Mary Lyn Fonua

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Aug. 14, 2012) – A wild boar chase by kava growers living on Tonga's volcanic island of Tofua yesterday may have led to the cancellation of an international flight to Tonga today, after smoke was spotted near the island and mistaken for a volcanic eruption.

Paloni Ta'ufo'ou, one of the ten people living on Tofua, told Matangi Tonga this evening by cell phone that they set fire to scrub on the island yesterday August 13, to flush out boars.

The community on the northern tip of the active volcano was not aware of any new seismic activity. "We saw a whale watching boat off the island so perhaps they thought the smoke was an eruption," said Paloni.

Meanwhile, based on a unidentified pilot report and satellite image of an apparent "ash cloud" near Tofua Island, official advisories were issued by the Meteorological Service in Wellington, New Zealand, stating that Tofua had "erupted 20120813/0342Z" An ash cloud was tracked in the area between Tonga and Fiji.

The advisory was picked up by the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand who notified airline operators in the region.

As a result of the advisory this morning Virgin Australia cancelled its flight out of Auckland to Tonga, on the Auckland-Tonga-Sydney route, stranding Australian-bound passengers in Tonga.

Soane Patolo the general manager of Tonga's Airport Terminal Services in Tonga said he believed that the flight was cancelled due to an ash cloud. "We are seeking more information on this," he said. Some of the delayed passengers would be able to travel to Auckland on the scheduled evening flights today, and some would go out through Auckland tomorrow. "But any left over passengers will have to go to Sydney on the next direct flight on Thursday," he said.

Sue Gardiner, CEO of Forum Travel in Nuku'alofa said that Air New Zealand did not envisage any disruption to its schedule, because they had a different flight path that was not affected by the ash cloud. They had received an email from the airline's control operation at 11:05 am today August 14. The advisory stated "Mt. Tofua in Tonga’s Ha'apai Island group erupted at 0815 local time today. The ash cloud currently sits between Tonga and Fiji at a very low altitude (below 10,000 feet) and is having no direct impact on either country or our flight paths. North-easterly winds are forecast to carry the cloud in a South-westerly direction passing to the south and well clear of Fiji."

Tonga's domestic airline Chatham Pacific, which flies over the area every day, was unable to confirm any sightings of an ash cloud. Adrian Ali the manager in Nuku'alofa said there had been no reports of any "ash cloud" from all domestic flights.

Pilot report

A spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand, Peter Lechner told Matangi Tonga this evening that the reports of a volcanic eruption at Tofua had been issued by the New Zealand Meteorological Service and were sourced to a pilot report. "There would have to have been an observation report and not just satellite imagery," he said.

"It will have come from operations and have been validated with a report, probably from the Tonga geophysics people. This is done very seriously and professionally," he said.


Meanwhile, geologists in Tonga were not aware of any new eruption at Tofua. The staff at the Ministry of Lands and Environment said they had not received any information on any recent eruption from their usual sources.

Tonga's Meteorological Office staff was also unable to confirm any evidence of an eruption on Tofua.

Siu Tapu the meteorological officer in Ha'apai said that after receiving an advisory between 4-5pm yesterday they had kept a close eye on Tofua. "We did not think it was anything big because we could not see anything on the island. If it was something big it would have been still firing this morning, but we could not see anything."

Siu said they had not been able to contact anyone on the volcano because they did not answer their phones, so there were no eye-witness reports of an eruption that she was aware of.

Roast pork and kava

Meanwhile, the Tofua growers of a potent kava Tonga were this evening possibly enjoying some roast pork, while some Australian-bound passengers delayed in Tonga were told they might have to wait until Thursday before they can get another flight to Sydney. Travellers have been stranded by human activity on Tofua before.

The island is known for Captain Bligh who was stranded there during the famous Bounty Mutiny 1789. The first historical eruption of Tofua was observed by Captain Cook in 1774.

Tofua volcano is the subaerial part of a large frequently active stratovolcano. It forms the 8 km wide circular Tofua Island, dominated by the 5 kilometer wide caldera containing a freshwater lake at only 30 meters above sea level and surrounded by steep 300 meter cliffs.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment