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Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano Erupts, Prompting Mandatory Evacuations

PAHOA, Hawaii — A volcanic eruption has spewed molten rock and hazardous gases from the ground in a small community on Hawaii’s Big Island, sending people fleeing from their homes as trees burn and the threat of more destruction is feared.

Kilauea volcano’s eastern rifts — cracks miles away from its summit — erupted late Thursday afternoon, spurting lava in Leilani Estates, a community of about 1,700 people near the Big Island’s eastern edge.

Video posted on social media showed magma spewing several feet into the air from a new crack in a Leilani Estates street. Aerial videos showed lava searing a long orange and smoky line through a wooded area.

Authorities ordered residents of Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens to evacuate to two community centers, which are serving as shelters.

Leilani Estates resident Meija Stenback told CNN affiliate KITV that she left the area with her family. The eruption came after hundreds of earthquakes shook the eastern side of the Big Island over four days, and residents had been warned an eruption was possible.

“We knew it was coming, and even now it’s … really surreal at this point,” Stenback told KITV.

A thick plume of smoke and ash also rose Thursday from the Puu Oo volcanic vent, roughly halfway between Kilauea’s caldera and Leilani Estates.

Concerns about sulfur dioxide

Destructive molten flows weren’t the only concern. Volcanic eruptions can release potentially dangerous sulfur dioxide — and fire department personnel have detected high levels of the gas in the evacuation area, the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said.

Exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide could be life-threatening, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Breathing large amounts of sulfur dioxide could result in burning of the nose and throat and breathing difficulties, the agency says.

Gov. David Ige said he’s activated the Hawaii National Guard to help with evacuations and security.

“I urge residents in Leilani Estates and the surrounding areas to follow instructions. … Please be alert and prepare now to keep your family safe,” he tweeted.

Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It’s in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has since closed off nearly 15,700 acres due to “the possibility of a new eruption and unstable geologic activity.” But most of the park remains open, it said in a statement.

Since Monday, hundreds of earthquakes — most of them around 2.0 magnitude — have been recorded in the area. The series of quakes came after a collapse of a crater floor of Puu Oo.

Since that collapse, about 250 earthquakes were reported in the area into Tuesday evening, according to a Hawaiian Volcano Observatory status report.

The tremors have been going on for days, jarring residents, who’ve been reporting nearly constant ground vibrations. They have also reported cracks in roads.

The US Geological Survey said the magnitude of the most severe quake ahead of the eruption was 5.0.

“It has now become unnerving,” resident Carol Shepard told CNN affiliate KHON.

She said the flurry of earthquakes seemed to happen every minute.

“It’d be like the house would shake. It’d be like somebody that weighs 300 pounds came in my living room, and jumped up and down,” she said.