Etna spews lava but towns safe
Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano, kept spitting fire yesterday after being jolted awake by a series of earthquakes, but officials said towns were safe from the red-hot lava streams and urged calm.
As tongues of magma snaked down the northern and southern mountain slopes, rescue teams scrambled water-spraying planes to cool the boiling flows and extinguish blazing trees.
"The real problem at this point is the fires from the lava setting trees alight, but the town is far from being threatened," said a civil protection official in Linguaglossa, a town 500 metres up the 3,350-metre volcano.
The popular ski town, whose name means "big tongue of lava", was at least 12 kilometres from the lava river, he said.
Nonetheless some of the town's 6,000 inhabitants ventured up the mountain and nervously eyed the glowing rocks and boiling liquid spilling down. While their homes appeared safe, rich farmland and mountain lodges were destroyed.
"It's dangerous for the buildings and for the vineyards but not for the people," said 21-year-old Daniele Riccardio.
Nearby, Antonio Lacche, 71, shrugged his shoulders. "We're used to Etna, we live together, we're not afraid," he said.
Etna, which had its last major eruption in 1992, began rumbling on Sunday after more than 100 small quakes shook the eastern edge of Sicily and parts of mainland Italy.
And fears increased yesterday after a fresh tremor, measuring 3.8 on the Richter scale, struck almost directly beneath the volcano, the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology said.
While Sicilian officials called on the government to declare a state of emergency yesterday, Nello Musumeci, the president of the province of Catania, said the situation was under control.
"At the moment there are no problems for any inhabited areas, although Etna's tourist trade is now in crisis," he said.
Graziella Pappalardo, whose family-run restaurant kept Etna tourists well-fed, wept on a friend's shoulder as she realised lava had swallowed the establishment.
"The emergency services are a mess, the lava has already arrived here, they're just a mess," she said, blinking back tears as Etna roared behind her.
Civil protection officials estimated the two lava rivers above Linguaglossa were up to 400 metres (yards) wide and six metres high - the height of a telegraph pole.
And although the lava was about 900 metres away up the mountain, Linguaglossa town officials took no chances, closing schools for the next two days. The local priest, however, said he was keeping the church open to allow residents to pray.
So far there have been no deaths or injuries but Italian scientists warned yesterday the level of volcanic activity was still "very intense" and a mushroom cloud of smoke hovered ominously over the crater.
Meanwhile in Catania, Sicily's second-largest city which sits in Etna's shadow, doctors warned residents to protect their eyes from flaming particles of volcanic ash.
The main airport looked set to stay closed for the rest of the day, with flights redirected to Sicily's capital Palermo.
Etna is almost constantly rumbling, but experts say its fissures act like vents, releasing pressure at regular intervals instead of allowing it to build up into a massive explosion.
The volcano has not produced any serious activity since a series of eruptions in July and August last year, described as one of the most erratic and complex displays in 300 years.