Huge fissures open on Hawaiian volcano, some defy evacuation order

PAHOA, Hawaii, May 14 (Reuters) - Lava oozing from giant rips in the earth that have sprouted near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano threatened highways on Monday, raising the possibility that officials will order remaining residents to evacuate before access routes are cut off.

Since May 3 when Kilauea began erupting, 19 lava-spewing fissures have opened in the area, including one that tore through a subdivision on Monday in the Lower Puna area of Hawaii's Big Island.

Steaming cracks along one of the areas main routes, Highway 132, have raised concerns a new fissure may develop there, which would imperil access for 2,000 people in the lower Puna area.

If the highway is cut off, officials will start to plan for a mass evacuation, Hawaii National Guard spokesman Maj. Jeff Hickman told reporters.

“We’ve been telling them, 'evacuate if you can, because if we have to come in and get you, we’ll be putting first responders at risk," Hickman said.

More on the volcanic eruption:

The Honolulu County Mayor's office, which oversees Puna, said on Sunday that lava eruptions had destroyed 37 structures.

Since the eruptions began, officials have ordered the evacuations of nearly 2,000 people, mostly in the Leilani Estates area, where explosions could be heard on Sunday as steam rose from cracks in the roads.

The American Red Cross said 500 people sought refuge in its shelters on Sunday night because of volcanic activity.

"This is adding to the growing fear of a mass evacuation," the Red Cross said in a statement. "Some highways are closed and hundreds are without power."

In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey said that pent-up steam could cause an explosion at the top of the volcano as the pool of lava recedes, launching a 20,000-foot (6,100-meter) plume that could spread debris over 12 miles (19 kilometers).

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Oozing flows of molten rock have destroyed some 37 buildings in the past 10 days, while emissions of sulfur dioxide gas in some areas have turned vegetation brown. No deaths or major injuries have been reported in latest series of eruptions from Kilauea, which has been in a state of nearly constant eruption since 1983.

Kilauea, a 4,000-foot-high (1,200-meters) volcano with a lake of lava at its summit is located in the far east of Hawaii's 4,028-square-mile (10,430-square-km) Big Island, which is home to about 200,000 people.

The USGS warned that fissures could erupt throughout the area, and Civil Defense officials on Sunday ordered people living on Halekamahina Road to evacuate and be on the alert for gas emissions and lava spatter.

One of the newest fissures, a 1,000-foot (300-meter) groove with smoke pouring out both ends, was sending a narrow lava flow toward the ocean two miles away, Civil Defense officials said on Monday. If it reaches the water, it will breach a coastal route, highway 137, another access route in Lower Puna.

(Reporting by Terray Sylvester in Pahoa and Jolyn Rosa in Honolulu; additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Andrew Hay; Writing by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool)