TODOQUE, Canary Islands (AP) — The advance of lava from a volcanic eruption in Spain’s Canary Islands has slowed significantly, raising fears Thursday that it might fan out further and wreak more destruction instead of flowing out into the sea.
A giant river of molten rock 600 meters (2,000 feet) wide slowed to four meters (13 feet) per hour after reaching a plain on Wednesday. On Monday, a day after the eruption on the island of La Palma, it was moving at 700 meters (2,300 feet) per hour.
Stavros Meletlidis, a volcanologist at Spain’s National Geographic Institute, said the dynamics of any eruption were in constant flux.
“The lava is advancing very slowly because it cools in contact with the atmosphere, through friction with the ground and building materials and, above all, because its front edge is widening out,” he told Radio Televisión Canaria.
As it slowed, the lava grew thicker. In places, it rose up to 15 meters (50 feet) high, authorities said. The lava now covers 166 hectares (410 acres) and has swallowed up around 350 homes.
The uncertainty over what the volcano and lava would do left many residents on the western side of the island of 85,000 people in limbo. The National Geographic Institute said it recorded a minor 2.6-magnitude earthquake around noon local time. Scientists say the lava flows could last for weeks or months.
Joel Francisco, 38, said he and his elderly parents had to evacuate the area around the village of Todoque in a rush, taking only a few belongings and important documents.
Now that the flow seems to have slowed, he hopes to go back and retrieve some more things in case the house is entombed in lava — if police let him.
“We don’t know how long we have to wait until we can return to our homes because the roads are closed,” he told The Associated Press. “Some people have it worse off, their houses are gone.”
Like many on the island, Francisco works on a banana plantation, and his livelihood is also at risk of being ruined by lava or damaged by volcanic ash.
“We are waiting to see if we can go out to work or not,” he said. “It affects everything in our life. This changed our life.”
The eruption occurred along the island’s Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge. The Canary Islands are a volcanic archipelago. La Palma witnessed its last eruption in 1971.
Molten lava, ash and smoke continued to pour from the volcano, shooting up to 4,200 meters (nearly 14,000 feet) high, the Canary Islands Volcanology Institute said. That raised concerns about whether airspace above the island could remain open.
ENAIRE, which manages Spain’s airspace, said two areas above the affected area are being declared no-fly zones to allow emergency services to operate freely. Many flights to and from La Palma were delayed early Thursday.
Volcanic ash can be dangerous for aircraft. It can also cause respiratory problems, as well as potentially being an irritant for the eyes and skin.
The Emergency Military Unit deployed on the island said the readings it has taken of the air found no threat to health.
Authorities haven't reported any casualties from the eruption.
Scientists were monitoring the volcanic activity and had warned of a possible eruption. That allowed almost 7,000 people to be evacuated in time.
Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, visited La Palma on Thursday and met with some of those made homeless.
Officials had initially expressed fears about what would happen when the lava reached the Atlantic Ocean. The molten rock, whose temperature exceeds 1,000 C (more than 1,800 F), could cause explosions, trigger landslides and produce clouds of toxic gas when it hits the ocean, experts say.
Life on the rest of La Palma, which is roughly 35 kilometers (22 miles) long and 20 kilometers (12 miles) wide at its broadest point, has been largely unaffected, with undeterred tourists landing for previously scheduled vacations.
The Canary Islands are a popular destination for European tourists due to their mild year-round climate.
The islanders mostly live from farming and tourism.
Barry Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.