Etna villagers breathe again as lava flow eases

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The Independent Online

Villagers living on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily were offered a glimmer of hope last night as the flow of lava slowed down – but they were all too aware that the danger was far from over.

The opening of a new fissure at 2,700m on the eastern side of the mountain appears to have relieved pressure and slowed the lava threatening towns and villages, but Europe's most active volcano continued to spit out huge, noisy fountains of molten orange rock.Vulcanologists say Etna's state changes from hour to hour and is still highly unpredictable – there have been 2,500 tremors in the last three weeks alone.

The head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency, Franco Barberi, said he was "moderately optimistic" last night after the boiling orange mass that had been moving down the mountain at 10 metres an hour, widened and slowed.

It has come to a virtual halt two-and-a-half miles from Nicolosi, home to 7,000 people. However, Mr Barberi warned that the slowdown could simply be a pause. He pointed to the last big eruption in 1992, when the lava flow halted for several months, but activity continued inside the volcano and magma burst out in another direction, causing an emergency.

Calogero Murgia, the deputy commissioner for the state of emergency, said the slowing down of the river of lava gave them "more time to sort out solutions, such as what sort of mud to use to create the banks to contain the lava". He added: "The difficulty is finding dirt that is easy to move without damaging the environment."

The news did little to reassure the 15,000residents of the towns on the slopes of Etna – Nicolosi, Pedara, Ragalna and Belpasso. "We know and respect this mountain," one old woman told a local radio station, as she saw her summer cottage about to be consumed, "but each time it shows us what it is capable of we are chastened".

The authorities are working round the clock to build up mud walls that would guide the lava safely. Planes are trying to douse the boiling flow with water and battling to put out forest fires which have broken out because of the intense heat generated by the magma flow. Thousands of chestnut, pistacchio and fruit trees that thrive on the mountain have been destroyed. Ski-lifts dotting the slopes have been dismantled and the cabins taken away.

For days, immense black clouds have been visible from the mainland. The airport in Catania, which nestles beneath the mountain, was closed on Monday after heavy black ashfalls drastically limited visibility and covered the runways, but was reopened yesterday.

La Stampa reported that a battle was under way between two villages most at risk, Nicolosi and Belpasso. Each was worried that channelling the lava flow away from the other town would put their own community at risk.

In 1992, the 7,000 residents of Zafferana saw the lava flow that would have engulfed their village diverted by controlled explosions into the deserted Bove Valley. But this time, there is no safe zone – diverting the lava away from one settlement implies diverting towards another.