By Borja Suarez and Marco Trujillo
LA PALMA, Spain -Lava flowing from the Canary Islands’ first volcanic eruption in 50 years has forced the evacuation of 5,500 people and destroyed at least 100 houses, authorities said.
The flow of molten rock was expected to reach the coast later on Monday evening, potentially triggering more explosions, and the volcano itself would remain active for days.
The volcano erupted on Sunday, shooting lava hundreds of metres into the air, engulfing forests and sending molten rock towards the Atlantic Ocean over a sparsely populated area of La Palma, the northwesternmost island in the Canaries archipelago.
No fatalities or injuries have been reported but drone footage captured two tongues of black lava cutting a devastating swathe through the landscape as they advanced down the volcano’s western flank towards the sea.
A Reuters witness saw the flow of molten rock slowly tear its way through a house in the village of Los Campitos, igniting the interior and sending flames through the windows onto the roof.
Authorities have not given an updated tally of how many properties have been destroyed since the head of La Palma’s local government gave an estimate of 100 early on Monday.
Regional leader Angel Victor Torres said the damage would be substantial.
“It was horrible,” said Eva, a 53-year old tourist from Austria. “We felt the earthquake, it started in the morning … Then at 3 in the afternoon the lady from our house came and said you have to pack everything and leave quickly.”
“We’re happy to go home now,” she said at the airport, boarding a flight back home after cutting her trip short.
Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto said the eruption was “a wonderful show” which would attract more tourists – comments that were criticised by the opposition at a time when many residents have lost their homes.
Some of the tourists at the airport disagreed with Maroto. “We want to leave as fast as possible,” said Wienard, a 55-year- old social worker from Salzburg.
But at least one visitor was happy.
“I felt like a little child inside, very excited,” said Kabirly, 26, a market researcher from Belgium. “It was also my birthday yesterday so it was sort of a candle on the island cake!”
About 360 tourists were evacuated from a resort in La Palma following the eruption and taken to the nearby island of Tenerife by boat early on Monday, a spokesperson for ferry operator Fred Olsen said. A total of more than 500 tourists had to leave their hotels.
Officials said they were hopeful they would not need to evacuate any more people but warned of the need to treat the volcano with caution.
“It is still active and will continue to be active for the next few days,” regional leader Torres said. The lava flow was likely to reach the coast at about 8 p.m. local time (1900 GMT).
Officials warned of possible explosions and clouds of toxic gases when the lava reaches the sea.
Anticipating reduced visibility, maritime authorities on Monday closed down shipping to the west of the island.
La Palma had been on high alert after thousands of tremors were reported over a week in Cumbre Vieja, which belongs to a chain of volcanoes that last had a major eruption in 1971 and is one of the Canaries’ most active volcanic regions.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez arrived in La Palma on Sunday and said citizens would receive support.
Emergency services said it was unclear what path the lava would take to the ocean. Authorities had evacuated people with mobility issues from several coastal towns, including the Puerto Naos resort.
Airspace around the Canaries remained open with no visibility problems, the Enaire civil air authority said after a local airline cancelled four flights between islands.