PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) – A series of fresh earthquakes on Friday, including a couple capable of causing considerable damage, hit Hawaii’s Big Island, where the Kilauea volcano has been spewing fountains of lava into residential areas and forcing hundreds to evacuate.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said the latest tremor at 12:32 p.m. (2332 GMT) measured a magnitude of 5.8.
The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said the quake, which was on land close to the volcano, was not large enough to cause a tsunami.
Its epicenter was located 12 miles (19.3 km) southwest of Leilani Estates, one of the communities where lava has been burbling up from the ground from newly opened fissures or vents.
A new fissure opened up just before the latest tremor on Friday, the Defense Agency said in a text message, making a total of four found so far in residential areas.
The volcano, one of five on the island, began erupting on Thursday after a series of earthquakes over the past week, the USGS reported on its website. Starting around 11 a.m. on Friday, the island experienced a flurry of earthquakes, the largest registering magnitude 5.8.
Residents in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions, home to about 1,700 people, were ordered to evacuate after public works officials reported steam and lava erupting from fissures in the road, the Civil Defense agency said.
No injuries or deaths were reported.
“There are lava tubes on our property,” said Dale Miller, 58, a Leilani Estates resident, referring to the natural tunnels underground that drain lava during an eruption. “The whole thing is Swiss cheese.
“It felt like there was something under the house -– like a big snake was moving under the house,” said Lee Begaye, 61, Miller’s partner and housemate. Lee added this was the first time in eight years of living by the volcano that they’d had to evacuate.
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.
Keala Noel, 64, also from Leilani Estates, said she didn’t feel the lava was directly threatening them, but came to the shelter at 3 a.m. on Friday because of the sulfur. “We stayed because we didn’t feel any imminent danger. But I could hardly breathe yesterday.”
Two emergency shelters were opened to take in evacuees, the Civil Defense Agency said, while Governor David Ige activated the Hawaii National Guard to provide emergency help.
“Please be alert and prepare now to keep your family safe,” he said on Twitter to residents living near the volcano.
One resident, Ikaika Marzo, told Hawaii News Now he saw “fountains” of lava as high as 125 feet (38 meters). Others also told the news network they smelled burning brush and heard tree branches snapping.
Footage from a drone aired on the Hawaii News Now website showed lava incinerating trees as it crept near structures.
A 492-foot-long (150-meter) fissure erupted with lava for about two hours in Leilani Estates at about 5:30 p.m., the Hawaii Volcano Observatory said on its website.
Lava, which can reach temperatures of about 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,150 Celsius), spread less than about 10 meters (33 feet) from the fissure, the observatory said.
“The opening phases of fissure eruptions are dynamic and uncertain. Additional erupting fissures and new lava outbreaks may occur,” it said.
A plume of red ash rose from the volcano’s Pu’u ‘O’o vent high into the sky over the island, according to photos on social media.
Production at the Puna Geothermal plant was suspended until further notice, the Civil Defense Agency said on Friday, while Hawaii Electric Light said crews were disconnecting power in the areas affected by the active lava flow.
The Kilauea volcano has been erupting nearly continuously for more than three decades. Lava flows from the volcano have covered 48 square miles (125 square km), according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists say it is nearly impossible to predict how long an eruption will last.
Betty Long, 72, another Leilani Estates resident, evacuated to the shelter near Pahoa in the early hours of Friday morning, but her husband stayed behind with their pets because he was afraid of looters.
“I think my husband is like a lot of residents there” who are assuming looting is going to be a problem. “That’s why they are reluctant to leave,” she said.
Long said that while their retirement home is a gorgeous place to live, it comes with risks. She and her husband faced a choice between purchasing hurricane or volcano insurance. They chose the hurricane insurance, she said.
Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Sandra Maler