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Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano erupts, prompting mandatory evacuations

A volcanic eruption has spewed magma from the ground in a small community on Hawaii’s Big Island, sending people fleeing from their homes as molten rock burned trees and threatened more destruction.

Kilauea volcano’s eastern rifts — cracks miles away from its summit — erupted late Thursday afternoon, spewing lava in Leilani Estates, a subdivision of about 1,700 people near the Big Island’s eastern edge.

Video posted on social media showed magma spewing several feet into the air from a crack in a Leilani Estates street. Aerial videos showed lava searing a long orange and smoky line through a wooded area.

Authorities ordered residents of Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens to evacuate to a community center, which is serving as a shelter.

Leilani Estates resident Meija Stenback  KITV that she left the area with her family. The evacuation came after hundreds of earthquakes shook the eastern side of the Big Island, and residents had been warned an eruption was possible.

“We knew it was coming, and even now it’s … really surreal at this point,” Stenback told KITV.

Fire officials detected extremely high levels of dangerous sulfur dioxide gas in the evacuation area, according to the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency.

Gov. David Ige said he’s activated the Hawaii National Guard to help with evacuations and security.

“I urge residents in Leilani Estates and the surrounding areas to follow instructions. … Please be alert and prepare now to keep your family safe,” he tweeted.

Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It’s in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has since closed off nearly 15,700 acres due to “the possibility of a new eruption and unstable geologic activity.” But most of the park remains open, it said in a statement.

Since Monday, hundreds of earthquakes — most of them around 2.0 magnitude — have been recorded in the area. The series of earthquakes came after a collapse of a crater floor of Puu Oo, a volcanic cone in the Eastern Rift Zone of the Kīlauea volcano.

Since that collapse, about 250 earthquakes were reported in the area into Tuesday evening, according to a Hawaiian Volcano Observatory status report.

The tremors have been going on for days now, jarring residents, who’ve been reporting nearly constant ground vibrations. They have also reported cracks on roads.

The US Geological Survey said the magnitude of the most severe quake ahead of the eruption was 5.0.

“It has now become unnerving,” resident Carol Shepard told KHON.

She said the flurry of earthquakes seemed to happen every minute.

“It’d be like the house would shake. It’d be like somebody that weighs 300 pounds came in my living room, and jumped up and down,” she said.