PAHALA (Hawaii) • A third lava flow from Hawaii's erupting Kilauea volcano streamed into the ocean as US Marine Corps helicopters stood by to evacuate a Big Island community should molten rock or huge cracks block its final escape route.
Six huge fissures sent rivers of molten rock through a blackened, volcanic wilderness that was once jungle, farmland and rural homes on Thursday.
Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, entered the fourth week of what may be an unprecedented, simultaneous eruption at its summit crater and along a 9.7km string of fissures 40km down its east flank.
On Thursday evening, the volcano erupted at its summit, sending ash 3,000m into the air. The wind may carry ash to the south-west towards the Pahala area, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said.
At least 50 rural homes and other structures have been destroyed by lava from fissures in a small area of the Big Island. Some 2,000 people have faced mandatory evacuations and a further 2,000 in coastal communities may be forced to leave their homes if State Highway 130, their last exit, becomes blocked.
The US Marine Corps deployed two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters to Hilo, about 39km north, in support of a task force standing by in case an air evacuation is needed. Each helicopter can carry up to 50 people at a time.
"We have the capacity to evacuate all of the estimated population of lower Puna south of the lava flow within a few hours," Brigadier-General Kenneth Hara of the Hawaii National Guard said in a statement.
Road crews dumped material into cracks on the road and covered them with steel plates in an effort to keep the highway open.
"Talks and discussions have been underway for possible air evacuations if it did come to that," Mr Tim Sakahara of the Hawaii Department of Transportation, told reporters.
Up at Kilauea's 1,246m summit, at least 12 explosions a day are pumping ash plumes thousands of metres into the sky. Ash drifted up to 42km south-west to dust the black sands of Punaluu beach with grey powder before blowing out to sea.
Down on the east flank of the volcano, six fissures re-erupted in lava fountains, as volcanic activity moved west towards Highway 130.
Geologists said that after three weeks of escalating activity, Kilauea volcano has entered a "steady state" of eruption.
"It's probably going to do this for a little while longer,"said US Geological Survey scientist Wendy Stovall on a conference call, describing the stage of the eruption as the"middle" or "kind of the steady state".
While a roughly 26 sq km area of the Puna district has been ravaged, the authorities stressed the eruption was having limited effects on the Connecticut-sized island that is a major tourist destination.
Norwegian Cruise Line said it would reinstate port calls to the island's two largest cities, Kona and Hilo, after cancelling them in recent weeks.
Crystal Symphony cruises also said it planned to return to the two ports after cancelling a Wednesday Hilo stop due to "an abundance of caution".