By Borja Suarez and Marco Trujillo
LOSLLANOS DE ARIDANE, Spain -Families rushed to retrieve belongings from their homes and escape the advancing lava on Tuesday, as sirens sounded and helicopters flew overhead in air filled with smoke from an erupting volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma.
Drone footage showed the lava flowing westwards to the coast in three huge tongues, incinerating everything in their path, including a school.
The largest flow was advancing towards a banana plantation and water reservoir as it crept closer to the main street of the town of La Laguna, travelling at about 200 metres an hour, authorities said.
Lorena, a 42-year-old Laguna resident, raced to salvage furniture and electrical appliances from her parents’ home.
“We are nervous, we are taking out the most essential things like mattresses, the fridge,” she said, with her family’s possessions strewn around the back yard.
The town was evacuated on Monday but emergency workers gave residents a two-hour window to return home and save whatever they could.
Nearly a third of the population in the affected areas work in the banana plantation industry, a producers’ association said.
One family of three in the town of Los Llanos de Aridane, which lies in the possible path of the molten rock, hurried to load a Toyota van with mattresses, a fridge, washing machine and bags stuffed with clothes.
Residents in Los Llanos de Aridane were given one hour to pack up and flee, a scene played out over La Palma in the Canary Islands since the volcano erupted on Sunday, forcing 6,000 people to evacuate. At least 166 houses have been destroyed so far.
Regional leader Angel Victor Torres said emergency services were powerless to stop the lava’s “inexorable” advance to the sea and that more homes, churches and agricultural land would be consumed.
While the total damage remains hard to predict, he said it would far exceed the 400-million-euro threshold needed to qualify for European Union aid.
Authorities have warned that as it hits the sea, the lava could create a cloud of toxic gases and possibly explosions as the molten rock cools rapidly.
Marine authorities were keeping a two-nautical-mile zone offshore closed as a precaution “to prevent onlookers on boats,” the island council’s chief Mariano Hernandez told Cadena SER radio station, urging people to stay away. A road collapse partly hampered the evacuation on Monday.
The lava flow was initially expected to reach the shore on Monday, but it is now moving more slowly. More people had to be evacuated late on Monday and early on Tuesday after a new stream of lava started flowing from the Cumbre Vieja volcano.
“The lava on its path to the sea has been a bit capricious and has diverted from its course,” El Paso’s mayor Sergio Rodriguez told state broadcaster TVE.
The volcano erupted on Sunday, shooting lava hundreds of metres into the air after La Palma, the most northwestern island in the Canaries archipelago, had been rocked by thousands of tremors in the preceding days.
No fatalities or injuries have been reported.
A Reuters witness saw the flow of molten rock slowly engulf a house in the village of Los Campitos, igniting the interior and sending flames through the windows and onto the roof.
As of Tuesday morning, the lava had covered 103 hectares and destroyed 166 houses, according to data released by the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management service.
Emergency services have said residents should not fear for their safety if they follow recommendations.