Hawaii volcano simmers ominously, experts warn it could blow again

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PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) – A Hawaiian volcano that has been exploding for five days, destroying 35 homes and other structures as it disgorges rivers of lava and belches out toxic gas, appeared to have paused on Tuesday, but scientists warned that it could erupt again.

With 1,700 people already forced from their homes by lava flowing from some 2-1/2 miles of fissures emanating from Kilauea on the eastern side of the Big Island, emergency crews stood ready to evacuate still more residents.

“There’s still plenty of magma under the ground. Seismicity is still up,” Hawaii Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno told a community meeting on Monday night. “If things get dicey, you got to get out.”

So far, no deaths or major injuries have been reported since Kilauea, which has been in constant eruption for more than three decades, began a series of major explosions on Thursday, spewing fountains of lava some 300 feet into the air and vomiting deadly volcanic gas up through cracks in the earth. (For a graphic explaining the eruption: tmsnrt.rs/2IldVyS)

Magno said at the community meeting that the evacuation area could grow as the fissure system slowly spread into new areas, threatening homes.

Kilauea predominantly pours basaltic lava flows into the ocean, but occasionally experiences more explosive events such as the one that began last week.

The southeastern corner of the island was rocked by a powerful magnitude 6.9 earthquake on the volcano’s south flank on Friday, the strongest since 1975, and more quakes and eruptions have been forecast, perhaps for months to come.

“This pause is likely temporary and resumption of lava emission or additional fissure outbreaks are possible at any time,” the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said in a statement on its website.

Fissure 12 opened shortly after fissure 11 became inactive, in the forest south of Malama Street in Leilani Estates, in Hawaii, U.S. May 7, 2018. Picture taken on May 7, 2018. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

Kilauea has opened 12 volcanic vents since it started sending out fountains and rivers of lava as hot as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit on Thursday, officials said.

Heide Austin said she left her home just west of the eruption zone on Monday afternoon after noticing cracks appearing at the end of her driveway.

One eruption near her home “sounded like a huge blowtorch going off,” said the 77-year-old, who lives alone. “That’s when I really got into a frenzy.”

Many evacuees were allowed to return home during daylight hours on Sunday and Monday during a lull in seismic activity.

Residents of a second area, Lanipuna Gardens, were barred from returning home due to the deadly gas.

Leilani Estates, about 12 miles from the volcano, was evacuated due to the risk of sulfur dioxide gas, which can be life threatening at high levels.

Slideshow (15 Images)

Hawaii’s 4,028-square-mile Big Island accounts for less than a fifth of the state’s tourism. State data show that in the first three months of 2018, 16 percent of the $4.81 billion visitors spent in Hawaii came from the Big Island, less than half of the levels seen on the islands of Oahu and Maui.

Reporting by Terray Sylvester in Hawaii; additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Scott Malone, James Dalgleish and Jonathan Oatis

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