'The eruption of the century'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am

A volcano on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion awoke in what experts called 'the eruption of the century'.

But the Piton de la Fournaise volcano on eastern Reunion, a French overseas department, has lulled considerably, and residents remain out of danger.

Tourists and residents have been able to watch the smouldering lava and magma being tossed as high as skyscrapers.

'We can call it the eruption of the century,' said Zacharie Duputel, a seismologist at the Volcano Observatory for the island. 'We have never observed such a phenomenon.'

The eruption resulted in the collapse of the volcano's summit. At times, magma was spewed as high as 200 metres into the air.

The lava cut off a national highway as it spurted toward the sea at 60km/h, creating clouds of gas as it made contact with water.

Sulphur dioxide levels in the gas have not been measured at dangerous levels.

Lava flow is estimated at three million cubic metres per day.

On Sunday, lava leapt only 10 metres into the air, according to the observatory. There was less activity within the crater, though entire sections of rock continued to collapse.

About 100 residents were evacuated from a village in southeastern Reunion on Friday. Some believed they could see lava approaching.

However, they were allowed to return to their homes two hours later. What they thought was lava turned out to be a forest fire caused by burning ashes.

About a dozen families have decided not to return to their homes anyway, said Guy Riviere, deputy mayor for the eastern city of Saint-Philippe and an agent for the Office of National Forests.

He said they planned to return home after the volcano's activity reduced further.

'The atmosphere is gloomy in the village,' Riviere said.

About 300 hectares of primary forest has been destroyed over the past 10 days, and some 30 hectares of palm and vanilla plants have burnt.

Special timber that cannot be found elsewhere on the island was heavily damaged.AFP