Geologists have warned that Kilauea may be entering a phase of explosive eruptions, the likes of which Hawaii has not seen in nearly a century, that could hurl "ballistic blocks" and dust towns with volcanic ash and smog.
After a new fissure opened on Wednesday a half mile (0.8 km)from a geothermal power plant, Hawaii Governor David Ige set up a task force to remove pentane fluid used in the plant's turbines. If the chemical ignites, the resulting explosion could create a blast radius of up to 1 mile (1.6 km), Ige said.
The Puna Geothermal Venture plant sits at the edge of the Leilani Estates residential area on Hawaii's Big Island where lava from 15 volcanic fissures has so far destroyed 36 structures, most of them homes, and forced the evacuation of about 2,000 residents.
A new area just to the west of the residential area was evacuated on Wednesday after toxic clouds of sulphur dioxide started shooting up through cracks in a road, County of Hawaii Civil Defense reported.
"As more fissures open and toxic gas exposure increases, the potential of a larger scale evacuation increases," Ige said in a tweet on Wednesday evening.
"A mass evacuation of the lower Puna District would be beyond current county and state capabilities, and would quickly overwhelm our collective resources," Ige tweeted, saying in a separate post he had requested federal disaster assistance.
SURFING IN THE HAZE
The lower part of the Puna District, of which Leilani Gardens is a part, covers dozens of square miles and is home to many thousands of residents. It has the highest possible hazard rating for lava flows, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Surfers bobbing in the ocean off Kona on the west side of the island complained of volcanic smog, known as vog, that could be seen in a haze over the coast.
"Does that hat protect against vog?" one surfer was heard quipping to another about the floppy sun hat he was wearing.
In the village of Pahoa, about 24 miles (39 km) from Kilauea, school closures have added to a sense of disarray and ramped up stress levels, said gallery owner Amedeo Markoff, 49.
"It's like our version of a snow day - a lava day," joked Markoff, as his 10-year-old son Kai sat next to him in their business.
Magma is draining out of the volcano's sinking lava pool and flowing underground tens of miles eastward before bursting to the surface in and around homes on Kilauea's eastern flank, just a few miles from Pahoa.
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