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Lava flow on Hawaii's Big Island swallows district

A fissure continues to blast fresh lava several hundred feet in the air and flow towards Kapoho as the Kilauea Volcano lower east rift zone eruption continues PICTURE: LE Baskow/AP
Caleb Jones

A NEIGHBOURHOOD on Hawaii's Big Island has disappeared as lava poured into two oceanfront areas, smothering hundreds of homes and filling an ocean bay, turning it into new land jutting into the sea.

Molten rock entirely covered the neighbourhood – called Vacationland – and only a few buildings remained in the nearby Kapoho area, officials with the US Geological Survey said.

"The bay is completely filled in and the shoreline is at least 0.8 miles out from its original location," said USGS geologist Wendy Stovall.

"Vacationland is gone, there is no evidence of any properties there at all. On the northern end of that, there are just a few homes in the (Kapoho) beach lots area."

Resident Mark Johnson is hopeful that his home on a citrus farm is one of those still standing. His ocean-view property sits on a ridge near the base of Kapoho crater, and he thinks the lava could have missed it.

"Basically we are up on that hill, so we're still OK right now," Mr Johnson said.

But he has resigned himself to the possibility that he could lose his beloved farm, which he cannot access even if lava does not cover it. The property is close to a crater lake that the approaching flow vaporised days before entering his neighbourhood.

"I'm kind of at peace, actually," he said of potentially losing his home of 28 years. "I feel that I've had a really great experience."

County officials said the two neighbourhoods have 279 homes, and most are feared destroyed by the most recent lava flows in the low-lying area.

"Over the course of essentially two days, that entire area was covered by lava," Ms Stovall said.

Molten rock from the erupting Kilauea volcano has already destroyed at least 117 homes in the Lanipuna Gardens and Leilani Estates neighbourhoods where lava surfaced more than a month ago. The total number of homes destroyed in the eruption stands at about 400.

Scientists are still recording vigorous volcanic activity. While only one crack in the ground is spewing molten rock and the height of fountaining lava has decreased in recent days, "it's still really impossible to tell", when it will end, Ms Stovall said.

A magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck the summit of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano on Wednesday, sending a plume of ash and rock about 10,000ft into the sky.

The lava inundation is among the most destructive and costly in volcano property loss in US history. While no one has been killed and only one lava-related injury has been reported, the number of destroyed homes dwarfs other recent American eruptions.

It comes as a volcano erupted in Guatemala on Sunday and left 99 dead and nearly 200 missing.

In Hawaii, previous eruptions have destroyed small towns, but nothing on the scale of this outbreak. Lava flows destroyed homes and other buildings in the same area in 1955 and 1960, but the town of Kapoho was less densely populated.

Between 1983 and 2014, a Kilauea eruption razed homes in and around the town of Kalapana. Over the course of about eight months in 1990, 214 homes were destroyed in that area. One home was lost in a separate 2014 lava flow in the commercial hub of Pahoa.

Even major explosive eruptions like that of Washington state's Mount St Helens in 1980 did not result in the same number of homes lost. That volcano and others in the region that have had recent eruptions are remote with few people living nearby.

At Kilauea's summit, increased earthquake activity has led to explosive eruptions, some of which have shot rock and ash high into the air.

"We expect larger explosions will continue at the summit," Ms Stovall said.

Jessica Ferracane, spokeswoman for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, was on the summit on Wednesday and said three "sizable" earthquakes hit in the two hours she was there.

"It's a beautiful blue day, but it really seems eerie up there, lots and lots of ash covering areas near Jagger Museum and the earthquakes really make things seem very unsettled," she said.

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