LA PALMA, CANARY ISLAND - Thousands of residents fled their homes on Spanish Canary Island of La Palma on Sunday after a volcano erupted, sending lava shooting into the air and streaming in rivers towards houses.
Authorities had begun evacuating the infirm and some farm animals from nearby villages before the eruption, in the Cabeza de Vaca area.
Video footage showed fountains of lava shooting hundreds of metres into the sky, and at least three orange rivers of molten rock pouring down the hill, tearing gashes into woods and farmland, and spreading as they reached lower ground.
It came after intensified earthquake tremors.
“I was scared,” local resident Isabel Fuentes told Spanish television TVE. “For the media it is something spectacular, for us it is a tragedy.”
She added: “I was 5 years old when the volcano last erupted (in 1971). You never get over a volcanic eruption.”
Just before the eruption, authorities evacuated about 40 people with mobility problems and farm animals from the villages around the volcano.
Soldiers were deployed to help with the evacuation, the defence ministry said, and it is expected that more residents will be evacuated from surrounding towns.
Mariano Hernandez, the president of La Palma island, told Canary Islands Television there were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths from the eruption. He said there were five eruption points, of which two were spewing magma.
Authorities raised the threat level to yellow on Monday, requiring residents in at-risk zones to be prepared to evacuate.
It followed a 3.2-magnitude earthquake that was recorded just 100 metres below the surface on Saturday, while several more tremors were detected on Sunday morning, the largest at a magnitude of 3.8.
In total, more than 6,600 small earthquakes have been registered in the Cumbre Vieja area since the latest earthquake activity began on 11 September.
On Sunday morning alone, the National Geographic Institute (IGN) said 327 earthquakes had been detected.
The Scientific Committee of the Volcano Risk Prevention Plan said stronger earthquakes were “likely to be felt and may cause damage to buildings”.
The committee of experts also noted that a stretch of the island’s southwest coast was at risk from landslides and rockfalls.
La Palma’s last eruption was in 1971 when one man was killed while taking photographs near the lava flows.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez cancelled his trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly so he could travel from Spain’s mainland.