(CN) – A fissure nearly 500 feet long erupted with lava on the Big Island of Hawaii Thursday evening, prompting mandatory evacuations of 1,500 residents in two subdivisions near the Kilauea Volcano and causing a magnitude 6.9 earthquake Friday afternoon.
The earthquake could be felt across the entire island chain, but officials did not expect a damaging tsunami.
The youngest and southeastern-most volcano of five on the Big Island sent lava spatter and gas bubbles bursting from the fissure. Aerial footage showed a 200-yard band of fire boiling and spattering from a fissure that opened after a 5.0 magnitude earthquake in the thickly forested Leilani Estates sub-division in lower Puna district.
Eyewitnesses report smelling sulfur, then seeing steam and then lava flowing out of a crack in the road, culminating in 100 ft. geysers and a roaring sound like a jet engines.
Shelters have been opened at the Pahoa and Keaau Community Centers nearby, emergency declarations issued by Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim and Hawaii Governor David Ige, and the Hawaii National Guard called in.
Ige’s declaration also activated the Hawaii National Guard to support county emergency response teams with evacuations and security.
“The danger is of such magnitude that it warrants preemptive and protective action in order to provide for the safety, health and welfare of the residents of Leilani Estates and surrounding areas,” Ige said.
Residents in the Puna communities of Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions were ordered to flee after public works officials reported steam and lava spewing from a crack, according to the county’s Civil Defense Agency. The Hawaii Fire Department also reported high levels of dangerous sulfur dioxide gas in the evacuation area.
Hawaiian Electric Light Company crews turned off electricity in the area, and at least one business, Puna Geothermal Venture, did an emergency shutdown. An estimated 31,000 people live in the affected Puna district of Hawaii, mostly in high lava-flow hazard zones due to the presence of vents or being downslope of them.
“Remember, this is phase one,” said Mayor Kim, no stranger to the whims of the volcano known locally as Madame Pele. As civil defense director during the 1983 Puu Oo eruption which spewed lava fountains 1,500 feet into the air and later covered the community of Kalapana, Kim oversaw disaster relief efforts that included the moving of Kalapana Painted Church from harm’s way.
“We don’t know what will happen next, if anything does. I’ve seen so many dramatic changes,” Kim said.
The Puu Oo vent in the side of Kilauea has been active ever since the 1983 eruption, sending lava to the ocean in 1990 and creating some 550 new acres of land. The last time a major vent opened in the area was June 27, 2014. The event, named the “June 27th Flow,” sent lava flowing more than 12 miles into the town of Pahoa.
That event closed roads for weeks, forced evacuations and claimed several structures, including one home. It continued until March 2015, when another vent opening redirected the lava flow toward the ocean.
Thursday’s eruption came on the heels of a swarm of earthquakes that began Monday, including a magnitude 5.0 early Thursday. “The opening phases of fissure eruptions are dynamic and uncertain. Additional erupting fissures and new lava outbreaks may occur,” a U.S. Geological Survey emergency alert said.
More than 45 earthquakes were measured at Kilauea from midnight to 10 a.m. Wednesday. Most registered at around magnitude 2.0. In all, more than 250 small quakes have been recorded this week, including a magnitude 4.0 just offshore of Puu Oo early Tuesday.
But Hawaii Volcano Observatory research geophysicist Jim Kauahikaua told state news outlets the recent seismic activity is similar to what happened before the Kilauea eruption in February 1955. During that eruption, at least 24 separate volcanic vents opened up and lava covered about 3,900 acres.
Coastal communities from Kalapana to Kapoho were evacuated and sections of every public road to the coastline were buried by lava before the eruption abruptly stopped in May 1955, Kauahikaua added.
Such events are not uncommon in geological time. Looking toward the ocean from Jaggar Museum in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, some 4,000 feet atop Kilauea, one sees the frozen fingers of lava stretching in every direction, down the gently sloping shield volcano to Puna in the southeast and southwest to the ocean, a blue mist as far as the eye can see. Crazy pahoehoe, or smooth ropy, patterns and chunky, spiny a’a lava flow. Not a faint-hearted landscape.
Yet, as always when geological time and human time collide, there is a sense of disbelief. In an interview with Hawaii Tribune Herald, evacuee Luana Jones called the episode “surreal.”
“We keep wondering, ‘Is this really happening?’” she said. “Tutu Pele’s gonna do what she’s gonna do.”
Volcano officials couldn’t predict how long Thursday’s eruption may last, prompting Hawaii’s governor to activate the National Guard to help with evacuations and provide security to about 770 structures left empty when residents sought shelter.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.