La Palma Volcano Claims First Victim, 2 Months After Eruption Began

La Palma Volcano Claims First Victim, 2 Months After Eruption Began
Members of a military emergency unit stand as lava flows from a volcano reaching the sea on the Canary island of La Palma, Spain. (Photo: Taner Orribo, AP)

The volcano that has been erupting on the Canary Islands since September has claimed its first victim.

On Saturday, local news outlets reported that a 72-year-old man died at a family home between the towns of El Paso and Los Llanos de Aridan, two towns on the western coast of La Palma that have been heavily impacted by the eruption at Cumbre Vieja and are currently covered in thick layers of volcanic ash. While both towns have been evacuated since the volcano began erupting in September, the man, whose name has not been released, was given special permission to be in the area by local authorities as part of a volunteer cleanup crew.

Authorities are still determining the exact cause of death, but the man was found inside a family home with a hole in the roof, making it likely that he fell through the roof while cleaning ash off it. Authorities said that there have been several similar accidents of people falling off roofs while attempting to clean ash. Miguel Ángel Morcuende, a director at Pevolca, the national emergency committee running the volcano response, told Spanish newspaper El Pais that there’s a chance the man may have suffocated in the ash after his fall.

“Professional cleaning staff are working at all times,” Morcuende said “But it is evident that this is not enough and it is clear that many locals want to clean their roofs.”

While it’s not possible to predict when a volcano will stop erupting, experts have tentatively said in recent days that the volcano may be running out of steam. Explosive activity has slowed over the past week, suggesting that magma levels could be lower.

This is the first death tied to the eruption, but the volcano has had a huge impact on the residents and geography of the islands over the course of its longest eruption in nearly 350 years. The volcano is continuing to change the landscape of the island, including creating a new portion of the island off the southwest coast where lava is meeting the sea. Satellite photos released from the European Space Agency on Sunday show how new lava flows that began in November are making new deltas in the Atlantic Ocean as the molten rock enters the water and cools off.

The volcano has permanently altered life for many of La Palma’s 85,000 residents. Ash has blanketed several towns, creating a ballooning problem and generating a whole new industry and demand for cleaners. Prolonged evacuation orders for areas near where lava is flowing have disrupted the lives of thousands and caused a housing crunch as people search for places to stay. And while the Spanish government has promised around $US287 (A$393) million in aid for housing, cleanup, irrigation for agriculture, and other needs, that money has been slow to reach residents thanks to excessive red tape.

“You can see the pain and despair on the faces of many people on the street,” Oliver Martín, who usually works in tourism but has been helping with cleanup and aid efforts, told Deutsche Welle. “People are sad, although here in La Palma, we have always seen ourselves as a happy people.”

Martín’s daughter, who died in 2018, is buried in a cemetery in Tazacorte, a town that was evacuated in late October after a new lava flow entered the region; the cemetery is just 0.5 kilometers away from the active flow. For Martín, having his daughter’s resting place buried under lava “would be like losing her a second time.”