Videos Capture 'Curtain of Fire' as Volcano Erupts in Hawaii Neighborhood

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Lava from a fissure erupts on May 19 on the Big Island. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Volcanic eruptions have rocked a neighborhood on the Island of Hawaii, forcing more than 1,700 people to evacuate due to lava flows and dangerous sulfur gas. The ground first opened up May 3 in Leilani Estates, a subdivision in the Kilauea volcano's lower East Rift Zone, and at least 13 more fissures have followed in the days since, along with strong earthquakes and lava fountains spewing up to 300 feet in the air.

No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, but at least 36 homes and other structures have been destroyed. And while it's unclear how long this episode might last, authorities report no signs of the turmoil slowing down so far.

Photographer Jeremiah Osuna shot drone video showing a hypnotic overhead view of the initial eruption. Lava sprawls across a road and through a forested area, sending up plumes of volcanic gas and fiery splashes of molten rock.

"It sounded like if you were to put a bunch of rocks into a dryer and turn it on as high as you could," Osuna tells KHON-TV. "You could just smell sulfur and burning trees and underbrush and stuff. I couldn't believe it. I was kind of shaken a little bit and realizing how real everything is, and how dangerous living on the East Rift can be."

The lava flow, which Osuna describes as a "curtain of fire," was part of a lava outbreak that began May 3, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO). Although that initial fissure only released lava and gas for about two hours, it has been followed by at least 13 more vent eruptions in the days since. Continued eruptive activity is likely, the HVO warns, albeit intermittent.

"New outbreaks or resumption of lava production at existing vents can occur at any time," the HVO explains. "Areas downslope of erupting fissures are at risk of lava inundation. ... High levels of volcanic gas including sulphur dioxide are being emitted from the fissure vents. In addition, smoke from burning houses and burning asphalt is a health concern and should be avoided."

The eruptions prompted officials to declare a state of emergency, activate the Hawaii National Guard and order a mandatory evacuation for more than 1,700 residents. On top of the ongoing risk from lava itself, the evacuation orders are due to "extremely high levels of dangerous sulfur dioxide gas detected in the evacuation area," according to the County of Hawaii Civil Defense Agency.

Kilauea, one of Earth's most active volcanoes, has been erupting continuously since 1983. Its lava is a popular attraction, although it also sometimes makes dangerous incursions into populated areas, as it did during another destructive flow in 2014.

This week's eruptions weren't a big surprise, however, as they were preceded by a collapse of the Pu'u 'Ō'ō crater floor, as well as hundreds of small to moderate earthquakes, including a 5.0-magnitude temblor on May 3. That was followed by a 6.9-magnitude quake on May 4, Hawaii's most powerful since 1975.

Although no serious injuries have been reported, the lava has destroyed at least 36 homes and other structures, according to the Civil Defense Agency. Many residents were understandably rattled as they waited in emergency shelters set up for evacuees. "We knew it was coming," Leilani Estates resident Meija Stenback tells KITV, "and even now it's ... really surreal at this point."

And as Civil Defense administrator Talmadge Mango tells the BBC, there are signs the danger may not be subsiding. "Seismic activity is still extremely high," he says, "so we feel that this might just be the beginning of things."