Fireside Tales

View of Volcán de Fuego from the terraces of Volcán Acatenango, Feb 2017

This blog post is a condensed version of a research article published on 7th October in VOLCANICA. You can find the full article here. It’s fully open-access and free to download.

Volcanoes present one of nature’s most spectacular sights and, while most of us would be hugely impressed by the breathtaking spectacle of the flames, clouds and sounds of an eruption, for some other people the same experience will prove quite different.

The awestruck tourist, for example, will exclaim at every small explosion, but the local resident who has witnessed such events before comments only on the largest. One eruption can also have several different impacts, from a sprinkling of ash on clothes drying on washing lines to hot avalanches of rock that force entire villages to flee. The place where a person lives also affects how they experience an eruption and its impacts. If their livelihood depends on staying close to the volcano, they may be disinclined to leave unless an eruption is big enough to force them out. Generally, research agrees that a “volcanic disaster” is rarely caused by the eruption itself. Instead, a volcanic eruption causes a disaster for its neighbours by the social and economic conditions already in place that make people more vulnerable to loss.

Our research study

This was the focus of a study of Volcán de Fuego in southern Guatemala which I led last year. Fuego is very active and highly populated. An eruption of the volcano on June 3, 2018, generated pyroclastic flows – dense, destructive masses of very hot ash, lava fragments and gases – that descended the ravine of Barranca Las Lajas and destroyed the town of San Miguel Los Lotes. Official figures put the missing at 332 although independent estimates suggest a death toll of up to 2,900. In addition, some 5,000 people lost their homes.

The study team concluded that, while volcanoes are dangerous, people will always live around them. Given what we had learned, what steps could we take to make life less hazardous for the people who lived next to Fuego?

We realised that we didn’t know much about the experiences of local residents, so we spent several months gathering stories of their experiences during previous eruptions and what they had done at the time. From our interviews we learned that:

  • There are differences in what volcanic activity registers to people. This includes sensory information (sight, sound, smell), or eruption hazards (ash fall, mud flow, avalanche).
  • There are also differences in what volcanic activity matters to people. This is based on response – does this eruption matter enough for me to do something about it? Am I even able to do something about it?

Study findings

Here is an explanation. Because different people register different types of activity, an eruption is not just one eruption. This can mean that Person A experiences a completely different eruption from Person B. For example, a schoolteacher living on the east side of Fuego (pink star in Picture One) is witness to the same eruption as her elderly uncle, who has lived on his farm in a village west of Fuego for 30 years (blue diamond in Picture One). But the schoolteacher experiences a small impact, the farmer a much greater one.

Or say a scientist who is responsible for monitoring the volcano is present for the same eruption as the farmer. The scientist makes a living by informing people about changes in activity (blue lines in Picture Two), and the farmer makes a living by growing crops in volcanic soil that is rich but occasionally damaged by eruptions (orange lines in Picture Two). The scientist wants to save lives. The farmer is troubled by previous eruptions that occurred in the 20th century and is concerned about his crops.

Because what matters to people is different, responses are different. Person A will tolerate a different level of risk than Person B. So the same eruption can provoke different responses, and therefore have different outcomes, for Person A and Person B. For example, a guest in a private hotel who has a car and a smartphone is less vulnerable to an eruption than someone 500 metres down the road, who lives and works on their own small farm.

The team also came to the conclusion that the recommended actions suggested in the self-evacuation plan in Picture Three are not realistic for a lot of the people around Fuego.

Local residents' descriptions of eruptive activity from Volcán de Fuego
Picture One (above): quotations from residents of communities around Volcán de Fuego on how they experienced the volcano’s previous eruptions. Colour of text matches community symbol (i.e., resident quoted in pink lives in “pink star” community).
Differences between how satellite images (and scientists) and local residents experience eruptions of Fuego.
Picture Two (above): differences between how scientists and local residents experience activity of Volcán de Fuego between the years 1999 and 2018. Scientists’ experiences are in blue and are similar to satellite data. Residents’ experiences are orange lines emphasised by stars.
Government infographic with recommended actions for self-evacuation from an eruption of Volcán de Fuego.
Picture Three (above): government infographic with recommended actions for self-evacuation from an eruption of Volcán de Fuego. White boxes are translations of steps involved in self-evacution procedure.


Given this, and everything else we learned, what steps do we consider could be taken to make life less dangerous for people living next to Fuego? This is what the team proposed.

First, recognise the differences in what registers to Person A and Person B and present these differences together as two different but valid experiences of the volcano. The team considered that the responsibility for recognising these differences should fall on the person with greater resources, therefore the Guatemalan government should make more effort than local people to present the two experiences together.

Second, identify the barriers to prioritising volcanic activity, asking why different things matter to Person A and Person B. For example, the risk of a farmer losing his cows to theft or ash fall by evacuating too early is much larger than the risk of him staying at home and living through an eruption.

Third, think of how to resolve differences in impacts based on livelihood and location. For example, to let Person A, who was badly affected by a previous eruption, share their experience with Person B, who was not.

To summarise the research team’s findings:

  • People notice volcanic activity when has an impact on their day-to-day life.
  • This impact is different depending on how a person makes a living and where a person lives.
  • People are vulnerable to loss from an eruption because of societal and economic conditions that are already in place.

In conclusion, living with a volcano as your neighbour or host can never be free of risk, and this will prove to be the case as long as the need to make a living forces people to make their homes in some of the most dangerous, if also the most spectacular, places on Earth.

What do you think about this research? If you have any thoughts or questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. You can also contact me via Twitter (@AilsaNaismith) or email ( or

5 thoughts on “Fireside Tales

  1. Great storytelling, Ails! Really interesting to think about the diversity of people’s registers to the volcanic activity. It seems somewhat similar to that old question of “do different people perceive a particular colour the same way I do/does this other person also see orange?”. Except it’s actually determinable in this case, and you’ve clearly done a great job of understanding those different perception, and their implications. Awesome stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Angus! That’s a good analogy. The consequences of you and I seeing orange differently are less severe than seeing eruptions differently – and it’s really important to recognize those differences before we get to red alert.


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