La Palma volcano claims first victim since eruption began

A 72-year-old man was found dead on the Canary Island after having entered the exclusion zone to clear ash from his roof

Primera victima mortal La Palma
Volunteers clear away ash from a home in La Palma.Kike Rincón (Europa Press)

A 72-year-old man has died while clearing away ash from his home in the town of Los Llanos de Aridane, which was evacuated due to the volcanic eruption on La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands. Sources close to the Volcano Prevention Plan (Pevolca), which is managing the crisis, reported on Saturday that the victim was a resident who had been authorized by emergency personnel to return to his home in order to clean up ash, which has been piling up across the island since the eruption began on September 19.

Pevolca sources reported that the man was noticed to be missing on Friday, when other locals who had also been granted permission to enter the exclusion zone had left the area. The victim’s body was found in a property in the Corazoncillo neighborhood, which is on the border of Los Llanos de Aridane and El Paso. Civil Guard officers were investigating whether he died after falling from the roof while cleaning up ash, or if his death was caused by other circumstances.

In a press release, Pevolca said that the work of clearing away ash must be carried out within the established norms. “Residents must only enter the exclusion areas under the established protocol: with exhaustive control from local councils, only cleaning up those rooftops that can be reached to clear away ash and always with the proper self-protection measures,” it stated. Councils must keep a record of all the people who are going to clear away ash off rooftops, designate an official to oversee the matter and pass on all information to the Civil Guard.

Professional cleaning staff are working at all times,” explained Pevolca director Miguel Ángel Morcuende on Saturday. “But it is evident that this is not enough and it is clear that many locals want to clean their roofs,” he said, explaining that this could be done “following the protocols.” Morcuende expressed his condolences for the family, and indicated that the cause of death will not be known until an autopsy is done. He added that the victim may have been asphyxiated after being “buried by the ash on the rooftop.”

The volcano on La Palma on Sunday.
The volcano on La Palma on Sunday.Albert Garcia (EL PAÍS)

On Saturday evening, Civil Guard officers also located a foreigner who had gone missing while hiking near the exclusion zone, according to a press release from the police force. The hiker had become lost and called emergency services by telephone for help. An operation began to determine the man’s location, but at 3am rescuers lost contact with the hiker, possibly because his cellphone battery died. After searching for hours, the hiker was found: he had minor scratches, but was otherwise in good health.

Volcano “has increasingly less energy”

As of Monday, the volcano in La Palma’s Cumbre Vieja natural park has been erupting for 57 days, making it the longest eruption seen on the island in 343 years. According to the National Geographic Institute (IGN), a longer eruption has not been recorded since 1678, when the San Antonio volcano erupted for 66 days. The new volcano on La Palma, which is located in the Canaries archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa, has now overtaken the eruption of El Charco volcano in 1712, which lasted for 56 days.

Volcan La Palma
Eruption of the volcano on La Palma, seen on Saturday.Albert Garcia (EL PAÍS)

But according to authorities, there are signs that the eruption is easing. At a press conference on Sunday, María José Blanco, the director of the IGN, said that the downward trend of key indicators “gives the impression that the system has increasingly less energy.” These indicators include a drop in sulfur dioxide emissions, which are used to measure the strength of an eruption, and a fall in tremors, which affect the volcano’s magma chamber. Seismic activity in intermediate depths has also decreased as has the ground uplift. But Blanco warned there was not “just one way to interpret” the data.

According to Blanco, more time must pass before the downward trend can be confirmed. “Right now it is true that several values are on either a stable or downward trend. But this has to stay this way over time. In the specific case of sulfur dioxide, although the levels are high, they are lower than other days. It has to fall a lot more in order for us to say that it is a really low level,” she said.

The lava flows from the volcano on La Palma.
The lava flows from the volcano on La Palma. Pevolca

In the meantime, the volcano continues to wreak havoc on La Palma. More than 20 earthquakes hit on Sunday, including a 4.7-magnitude tremor that was felt by all the island. In a press release on Sunday, Pevolca stated that earthquakes of similar sizes could be recorded over the next few days.

The lava from the volcano has now swallowed up more than 1,019 hectares of land and destroyed 1,460 buildings, according to the land registry. Most of the lava is being channeled down the southernmost flow, which reached the banana plantations of Las Hoyas more than a month ago. Since then, it has not advanced, even though it is receiving the most molten rock.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS