Canary islanders flee as volcano vents its fury

Throwing a handful of belongings into her car alongside goats, chickens and a turtle, Yahaira Garcia fled her home just before the volcano erupted, belching molten lava down the mountainside.

Canary islanders flee as volcano vents its fury
Smoke rises from cooling lava in the residential area of Los Campitos on the Canary Island of La Palma. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

She and her husband, who live near the Bodegon Tamanca winery at the foot of La Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma, decided to leave on Sunday afternoon just before the eruption kicked off.

“We decided to leave even before they gave the evacuation order after a really terrible night of earthquakes… my house shook so much it felt like it was going to collapse,” the 34-year-old told AFP by phone.

“We were on our way when we realised the volcano had erupted.” He left in his car and she took hers to go and pick up her parents and their animals: four goats, two pigs, 20 chickens, 10 rabbits, four dogs and a turtle.

“I am nervous, worried, but we are safe,” Garcia said.

In residential areas flanking the volcano, hundreds of police and Guardia Civil officers were charged with evacuations, with the work continuing well into the night, police footage showed.

“This is the police. This is not a drill, please vacate your homes,” they shouted through loud speakers, their vehicles flashing blue lights on the drive through dark streets.

Elsewhere, the footage showed officers evacuating goats in pick-up trucks in an area which is above all, agricultural.

They also filmed the slow collapse of a building whose walls caved in under a wall of red hot lava.

READ ALSO: IN PICS: Houses destroyed and villages evacuated after Canary Islands volcanic eruption

‘700 metres from our home’

Although some 5,500 people have been evacuated and “around 100 homes destroyed”, there have so far been no reports of injuries.

As the lava beat an unstoppable path down the mountainside, Angie Chaux, who wasn’t home when the alarm was raised, rushed back to try and salvage some possessions.

“When we got there, the road was closed and the police gave us three minutes to get our things,” said the 27-year-old. It was 4:30 am and there were people and cars everywhere.

Smoke rises from cooling lava in the residential area of Los Campitos on the Canary Island of La Palma. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

“Right now, we’re watching the news and the lava is 700 metres from our home. I’m really worried because I don’t know what’s going to happen to it.”

Miriam Moreno, another local resident, said they had been ready to leave when the order came with emergency backpacks stocked with food and water.

“You can hear a rumble as if planes were flying overhead and see smoke out of the window although at night you could actually see the lava about two kilometres away,” she said, admitting they were worried about “toxic gases”.

Anguished wait

For the evacuees, it is an anguished wait to see what happens with no one sure when they will be able to go home – or what they will find when they get there.

“The worst of it is the anxiety about losing your home. My house on the beach is fine for the moment but I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back,” said 70-year-old Montserrat Lorenzo from the coastal village of El Remo.

And experts do not know how long the volcano will remain active nor when the flow of lava, which officials said was “about six metres (20 feet) high”, will stop.

“Now they are saying the volcano could continue erupting for three months… we don’t know when the volcano will settle down,” said Garcia.

Volcanology expert Stavros Meletlidis from Spain’s National Geographic Institute said it was too early to say.

“There are volcanoes in the Canary Islands that have erupted for days and others that have continued for several years,” he told Spain’s public television.

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3,000 people in Spain’s La Palma forced indoors as lava reaches sea

Around 3,000 people were ordered to remain indoors on the Canary island of La Palma on Monday as lava from an erupting volcano reached the sea, risking the release of toxic gas.

3,000 people in Spain's La Palma forced indoors as lava reaches sea
The lava flow produced by the Cumbre Vieja volcano has reached the sea before. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

The Canary Islands Volcanic Emergency Plan (Pevolca) “ordered the confinement” of residents of coastal towns and villages near where the lava cascaded into the sea, sending large plumes of white smoke into the air, local emergency services said on Twitter.

The order was given due to “the possible release of gases that are harmful to health,” it added.

The order affects “around 3,000” people on the island, Miguel Angel Morcuende, technical director of Pevolca, told a news conference.

This is the third time that a lava flow has reached the Atlantic Ocean since the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the south of the island erupted on September 19th, covering large areas with ash.

All flights to and from La Palma’s airport were cancelled on Monday because of the ash, the third straight day that air travel has been disrupted.

And for the first time since the eruption started, local authorities advised residents of La Palma’s capital, Santa Cruz de La Palma in the east, to use high-filtration FFP2 face masks to protect themselves from emissions of dioxide and sulphur.

Most of the island, which is home to around 85,000 people, is so far unaffected by the eruption.

But parts of the western side where lava flows have slowly made their way to the sea face an uncertain future.

The molten rock has covered 1,065 hectares (2,630 acres) and destroyed nearly 1,500 buildings, according to Copernicus, the European Union’s satellite monitoring service.

Lava has destroyed schools, churches, health centres and irrigation infrastructure for the island’s banana plantations — a key source of jobs — as well as hundreds of homes.

Provisional damage was estimated on Friday at nearly €900 million ($1 billion), according to the regional government.

The island of La Palma, part of the Canary Islands archipelago off northwestern Africa, is experiencing its third eruption in a century, with
previous ones in 1949 and 1971.