Technology & Science

Hawaii evacuations ordered as Mount Kilauea erupts

More than 1,700 residents were ordered to evacuate from their volcano-side homes after Hawaii's Kilauea volcano erupted, sending molten lava to chew its way through forest land and bubble up on paved streets.

Residents flee as fissures open in subdivision, lava flows along streets

This April 22, 2018, photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey shows a line of spattering along a lava lake margin with spatter being ejected well above the level of the Halema'uma'u Crater floor and occasional small bits landing on the rim with a piece of the thin, flexible crust on the lava lake being lifted and torn by a bubble burst at left in Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii's Big Island. (U.S. Gelological Survey via AP)

The Kilauea volcano sent more lava into Hawaii communities on Friday, a day after forcing more than 1,700 people to flee their rural homes, and authorities detected high levels of sulphur gas that could threaten elderly people and those with breathing problems.

Volcano officials couldn't predict how long the eruption may last, prompting Hawaii's governor to activate the National Guard to help with evacuations and provide security to about 770 structures left empty when residents sought shelter.

At least 100 people were staying in shelters Friday, with many more evacuees believed to be with relatives and friends.

Lava flows destroying sections of residential neighbourhoods, vegetation 1:06

Officials cautioned the public about high levels of sulphur dioxide near the volcano and urged vulnerable people to leave immediately. Exposure to the gas can cause irritation or burns, sore throats, runny noses, burning eyes and coughing.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, though officials say two homes in a rural Big Island subdivision have been burned by lava. 

A magnitude 6.9 earthquake rattled an area near the south part of the volcano Friday, but the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said there was no threat of a tsunami and transportation officials said no damage to roads has been reported. It came after a magnitude 5.4 earthquake struck the same area earlier in the day.

Julie Woolsey lives on a street where a vent opened up and channelled lava to within about 900 metres of her house. When it appeared, she freed her chickens, loaded her dogs into her truck and evacuated with her daughter and grandson.

"We knew we were building on an active volcano," she said, recalling how she purchased the lot on the Big Island for $35,000 US more than a decade ago. But she thought the danger from lava was a remote possibility.

 "You can't really predict what Pele is going to do," she said, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess. "It's hard to keep up. We're hoping our house doesn't burn down."

Scientists say at least three small fissure vents where lava can erupt have opened up in the subdivision.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said lava has been spattering and creating short flows that haven't travelled more than 10 metres from the vents.

Footage shown on local television showed lava spurting into the sky from a crack in a road. Aerial drone footage showed a line of lava snaking through a forest.

Dramatic visuals taken by local residents before fleeing area 0:58

Resident Jeremiah Osuna captured drone footage of the lava burning through the trees, a scene he described as a "curtain of fire."

"It sounded like if you were to put a bunch of rocks into a dryer and turn it on as high as you could. You could just smell sulphur and burning trees and underbrush and stuff," he told Honolulu television station KHON.

Asta Miklius, a geophysicist with the USGS Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that there is no way to know exactly how long the eruption will continue.

"One of the parameters is going to be whether the summit magma reservoir starts to drain in response to this event, and that has not happened yet," Miklius said. "There is quite a bit of magma in the system. It won't be just an hours-long eruption probably, but how long it will last will depend on whether the summit magma reservoir gets involved. And so we are watching that very, very closely."

Days of earthquakes

County, state and federal officials had been warning residents all week that they should be prepared to flee, as an eruption would give little warning. Officials at the (USGS) on Thursday raised the volcano's alert level to warning status, the highest possible, meaning a hazardous eruption is imminent, underway or suspected.

Nearby community centres have opened for shelter.

Ranson Yoneda, the recreation director for a Pahoa community centre, was readying the gymnasium for evacuees after it was selected as a Red Cross evacuation centre.

He said the people who arrived first were hungry for information.

"They just want to know what's going on because they were told it's a mandatory evacuation," he said by telephone.

Scientists said areas downslope of the erupting vent were at risk of being covered by lava. Leilani Estates appeared to be at greatest risk, but scientists said new vents and outbreaks could occur and it's not possible to say where.

Hawaii residents flee homes amid volcano dangers 1:18

The eruption comes after days of earthquakes rattled the area's Puna district. A nearby school was closed due to the ongoing seismic activity and several roadways cracked under the strain of the constant temblors. A magnitude 5.0 earthquake was recorded hours before the eruption began Thursday.

The Puu Oo crater floor began to collapse Monday, triggering a series of earthquakes and pushing the lava into new underground chambers.

The collapse caused magma to push more than 16 kilometres downslope toward the populated southeast coastline of the island.

Aerial shots show rare bubbling and spattering within the lava lake atop the summit 0:46

USGS geologist Janet Babb said the magma crossed under Highway 130, which leads to a popular volcano access point, on Tuesday night.

Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency closed the area to visitors on Tuesday and ordered private tour companies to stop taking people into the region.

Most of Kilauea's activity has been non-explosive, but a 1924 eruption spewed ash and nine-tonne rocks into the sky, leaving one man dead.

Puu Oo's 1983 eruption resulted in lava fountains soaring nearly 460 metres high. In the decades since, the lava flow has buried dozens of square miles of land and destroyed many homes.