A volcano on Spain’s Atlantic Ocean island of La Palma erupted Sunday after a weeklong buildup of seismic activity, prompting authorities to evacuate thousands as lava flows destroyed isolated houses and threatened to reach the coast. New eruptions continued into the night.
The Canary Islands Volcanology Institute reported the initial eruption shortly after 3 p.m. near the southern end of the island, which saw its last eruption in 1971. Huge red plumes topped with black-and-white smoke shot out along the Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge, which scientists had been closely watching following the accumulation of molten lava below the surface and days of small earthquakes.
Víctor Torres, president of the Canary Islands, said that by 11 p.m. some 5,000 people had been evacuated from their homes. Most, he said, had found family or friends to take them in. The rest were in shelters.
La Palma, with a population of 85,000, is one of eight volcanic islands in Spain’s Canary Islands archipelago off Africa’s western coast. At their nearest point, the islands are 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Morocco.
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A 4.2-magnitude quake was recorded before the eruption, which took place in an area known as Cabeza de Vaca on the western slope as the ridge descends to the coast. As the eruptions continued, at least two open mouths belched bright red magma into the air that then flowed in tight streams down the mountain slope.
Shortly after the initial explosion rocked the area, one black lava flow with a burning tip immediately slid toward houses in the village of El Paso. Mayor Sergio Rodríguez said 300 people in immediate danger were evacuated, roads were closed and authorities urged the curious not to approach the area.
The lava eventually destroyed at least eight homes, according to local officials, causing at least one chalet with a tower to crumble. Authorities warned that the lava flows could also threaten the municipalities of El Paraíso, Alcalá and surrounding areas.
Carlota Martín was at an agricultural plot her family has in Todoque, just downhill from the eruption site, when she heard a huge explosion.
“When we saw the column of smoke, we thought it could not be real, but it kept growing and we knew we had to get out of there,” she told The Associated Press. “You leave, but you are also looking back because you want to see what will happen. Nobody knows how the lava flows will descend, but our plot and lots of houses in the area could be in the way.”
Mariano Hernández, president of La Palma island, said there were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries but the lava flows made him concerned “about the populated areas on the coast.”
“People should not come near the eruption site where the lava is flowing,” Hernández said. “We are having serious problems with the evacuation because the roads are jammed with people who are trying to get close enough to see it.”
Itahiza Dominguez, head of seismology of Spain’s National Geology Institute, told Canary Islands Television that although it was too early to tell how long this eruption would last, prior “eruptions on the Canary Islands lasted weeks or even months.”
The last eruption on La Palma 50 years ago lasted just over three weeks. The last eruption on all the Canary Islands occurred underwater off the coast of El Hierro island in 2011. It lasted five months.
Volcanologist Vicente Soler of Spain’s Higher Council said "the material appears to be very fluid, the lava flows will reach the sea sooner or later.” The scientific committee of the Volcano Risk Prevention Plan said part of the island’s southwest coast was at risk for landslides and rock falls.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez cancelled his trip to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly so he could travel from Spain’s mainland to the Canary Islands.
“The people of La Palma should rest assured that we have all the resources and emergency personal necessary,” Sánchez said after meeting with local officials on the island.
Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona. Renata Brito contributed to this report from Barcelona.