Authorities on the Canary island of La Palma have told spectators to stay away from the continuing volcanic eruption that began on Sunday and has forced the evacuation of 5,000 people and destroyed at least 20 homes.
The island had been on high alert after more than 22,000 tremors were reported within a week in Cumbre Vieja, one of the most active volcanic regions in the archipelago.
Officials had begun evacuating the infirm and some farm animals from nearby villages before the eruption at 3.15pm local time on Sunday on a wooded slope in the sparsely populated Cabeza de Vaca area, according to the government.
Two hours later, with lava edging down the hillside from five fissures, the municipality ordered the evacuation of four villages, including El Paso and Los Llanos de Aridane.
After nightfall, video footage showed fountains of lava shooting hundreds of metres into the sky, and at least three incandescent orange rivers of molten rock pouring down the hill, tearing gashes into woods and farmland, and spreading as they reached lower ground.
Mariano Hernández, the president of La Palma’s council, asked people to keep away from the affected areas because spectators were hampering the evacuation effort.
“People shouldn’t come near the eruption site where the lava is flowing,” he said. “We’re having serious problems with the evacuation because the roads are jammed with people who are trying to get close enough to see it.”
The regional president of the Canaries, Ángel Víctor Torres, said while there would be “considerable material damage”, the authorities hoped no one would be injured. “We’re not expecting any other eruption,” Torres told SER radio.
One stream, several hundred metres long and tens of metres wide, crossed a road and began engulfing scattered houses in El Paso. Footage shared on social media showed the lava entering a house.
“When the volcano erupted today, I was scared. For journalists it is something spectacular, for us it is a tragedy. I think the lava has reached some relatives’ houses,” a local resident, Isabel Fuentes, 55, told Spanish television TVE.
“I was five years old when the volcano last erupted, in 1971. You never get over a volcanic eruption,” added Fuentes, who said she had moved to another house on Sunday for her safety.
Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, arrived in La Palma, the most north-westerly island of the archipelago, late on Sunday for talks with the islands’ government on managing the eruption.
“We have all the resources [to deal with the eruption] and all the troops, the citizens can rest easy,” he said.
Stavros Meletlidis, a volcanologist at the Spanish Geographical Institute, said the eruption had torn five holes in the hillside and he could not be sure how long it would last. “We have to measure the lava every day and that will help us to work it out,” he said.
On Monday, the Canary island airline Binter cancelled four flights to and from the island of La Gomera because of the smoke and ash plume from neighbouring La Palma.
In 1971, one man was killed as he was taking photographs near the lava flows, but no property was damaged.
The earliest recorded eruption in La Palma was in 1430, according to the Spanish National Geographical Institute.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report