Rocks spew from volcano summit

Red hot lava spatter into a copse of trees instantly setting them alight

Residents were asked to take to take shelter in place if they found themselves in the path of the plume anyway.

A spike in toxic sulfur dioxide gas levels closed schools around the town of Pahoa, 25 miles (40 km) east of the volcano, where lava from giant cracks has destroyed 37 homes and other structures and forced about 2,000 residents to evacuate.

In the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, a webcam caught the consequences of the short-lived eruption: an onslaught of wet, dusty ash raining on a darkened landscape.

After an eruption from the Kilauea volcano's summit shot ash and smoke 30,000 feet into the air on Thursday, officials handed out nearly 18,000 masks to help residents deal with the fallout.

Thursday's eruption lasted only a few minutes, said Coombs who called it "a big event that got people's attention, but did not have widespread impact". Winds blowing a plume emanating from crater 30,000 feet in the air were mostly directing it away from people.

"Protect yourself from ash fallout", the officials warned in an alert.

"Just a little while ago we had something that sounded like thunder", Hoyt said.

USGS scientists use Ash3D computer simulations to show how far ash might travel and how much ash might fall to the ground.

Thursday's event was, if not the big one, then certainly a big one, researchers said.

Historically, Kilauea's rumblings have not been as deadly as other volcanoes around the world, said Steve Malone, an emeritus research professor of volcanology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Geologists said the 4:15 a.m. (10:15 a.m. EDT) explosion was likely the first in a series of steam-driven blasts last seen in 1924, rather than "the big one" that nervous residents had feared as Kilauea was rocked by earthquakes in recent days.

Residents with respiratory problems had already been warned to stay indoors in the area on Thursday following an early morning ash cloud eruption at the Halemaumau Crater.

The eruption of Kilauea began on May 3.

The noxious gas, normally emitted at risky levels only from the volcano's Halemaumau Crater, was seeping at a greater rate from the fissures in Leilani Estates, a residential area of about four square miles in the Big Island's Puna district.

But phreatic eruptions can still pose a deadly threat to anyone near the eruptive vent - and they are extremely hard to forecast, Poland said.

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