Birds fly in the foreground as a plume of ash and steam rise from Popocatepetl volcano as seen from San Andres Cholula, Mexico, Wednesday April 18, 2012. Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano is continuing to spout gases and hot rock fragments and it is dusting towns on its flanks with volcanic ash.

Legendary Mexican Volcano Blanketing Indigenous Regions in Ash

Rick Kearns

UPDATED APRIL 21, 2012: As of late Friday the volcano started to shoot out burning rock fragments and gas. Authorities are now preparing to evacuate the area immediately surrounding the volcano.

The Popocatepetl Volcano in Mexico has been living up to its nahuatl name, meaning ‘smoking mountain’, by raining down ash and rock in an area with many indigenous residents.

Popocatepetl, a 17,886-foot high volcano, shot out burning rock fragments, plumes of ash and water vapor on Monday, April 16th and by Wednesday, officials at Mexico’s National Center for Disaster Prevention (CENAPRED) warned “…that emergency services should ready evacuation teams and shelters, limit access to the area around the volcano and alert air-traffic control systems. The population centers around the vicinity of the volcano, including Estado de Mexico, Morelos, Puebla, and Tlaxcala are recommended to pay particular attention to any official information regarding the volcanic activity.”

Volcanologists reported that the eruption sent up an ash plume rising over 1.25 miles into the air, creating a rain of ash up to 7cm thick in over 30 communities near the volcano. Government officials announced that the area within 7.5 miles of the volcano would be an exclusion zone for the next few months. Schools in at least three towns around that zone were closed and evacuation shelters were set up.

By April 19th, officials had issued a stage 5 yellow alert in the expectation that the active volcano would be sending out more rocks and ash in the coming weeks. As of that day, the volcano had spouted vapor and ash at least 15 times in the prior 24 hours but there were no reports of serious damage to the area.

The Popocatepetl Volcano is located 40 miles from Mexico City and borders four states that have a combined indigenous population of approximately 2 million people. Both Popocatepetl and its small neighbor, the Iztaccihuatl volcano, were named after the tragic love story of Popocatepetl, a Tlaxaca warrior and his lover, Iztaccihuatl, a Tlaxaca princess.

According to one version of the legend, Popocatepetl had met and fallen in love with Iztaccihuatl, the daughter of the Tlaxaca chief. He was promised her hand in marriage if he did well in battle against the Aztecs who controlled most of that region. After months of no news about her lover, a messenger came to Itzaccihuatl and told her that Popocatepetl had died in battle. Overcome by grief, she cried out and soon the stricken princess died of a broken heart. Not long afterwards, Popocatepetl returned triumphant, expecting to marry his princess only to find her dead of despair. He was overcome by anger and grief and took her body to a mountaintop where he buried her and swore to stand guard over her until he too died. Meanwhile the gods took pity on the doomed lovers and covered them with branches and snow, turning them into mountains. The taller one, Popocatepetl, became a volcano that still trembled with his love and anger for all time.