Earthquakes, lava fissures put Hawaii’s Big Island on high alert

PAHOA, Hawaii, (Reuters) – Hawaii’s Big Island was on high alert yesterday after the Kilauea volcano spewed lava into residential areas, forcing hundreds to evacuate, and a series of earthquakes, including a powerful tremor, shook the island.

On Saturday, three more homes were reported destroyed, bringing the total to five, said Janet Snyder, a spokeswoman for the mayor of Hawaii County, as eruptions continued following a 6.9 tremor that rocked the island’s southeast corner at midday on Friday.

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said at midday local time on Saturday that “eruptive activity is increasing and is expected to continue.”

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said on Saturday that several new lava fissures had opened in the Leilani Estates subdivision of Puna District, about a dozen miles (19 km) from the volcano. Not all the fissures were still active, it added.

“Until we see earthquake activity dying down and the ground stops moving, it’s likely that this activity is going to continue,” said Tina Neal, a scientist in charge at the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory, after a community meeting attended by about 300 people on Friday.

Two evacuation centers were hastily set up in Pahoa town after lava started burbling up through fissures in the ground in neighborhoods nearby.

Although no significant lava flows have yet formed, additional outbreaks of lava, which can reach temperatures of about 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,150 Celsius), were expected, the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said.

Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and one of five on the island, has been in constant eruption for 35 years. Lava flows from the volcano have covered 48 square miles (125 square km), according to the USGS. Scientists say it is nearly impossible to predict how long an eruption will last.

Kilauea began spewing lava into residential areas on Thursday after a series of earthquakes over the preceding week. Starting around 11 a.m. on Friday, the island experienced a flurry of earthquakes, culminating in the massive magnitude 6.9 tremor. Some 1,700 residents in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens were ordered to leave their homes on Thursday after public works officials reported steam and lava erupting from fissures in the road.

No injuries or deaths were reported, but Hawaii Governor David Ige activated the Hawaii National Guard to provide emergency help.

Civil defense officials have warned the public about high levels of sulfur dioxide near the volcano, one reason for the evacuation orders. The gas can cause skin irritations and breathing difficulties.

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