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An explosive volcanic eruption in Guatemala unleashed pyroclastic flow on Sunday – a scorching mix of gases, rocks, lava, and ash, that can travel upwards of 400 mph with internal temperatures ranging from 90 to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit – burying structures, roads and people. The flows were the cause of at least 69 deaths by Tuesday, with this number expected to rise as ash-covered towns are excavated.

In an interview with the New York Times, the President of Guatemala’s Association of Municipal and Departmental Firefighters Dr. Otto Mazariegos likened the eruption to Pompeii, estimating that the death toll was “probably in the hundreds.”

By Tuesday morning, only 17 of the dead were able to be positively identified.

A truck is covered in volcanic ash spewed by Volcan de Fuego, or Volcano of Fire, in Escuintla, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. A fiery volcanic eruption in south-central Guatemala sent lava flowing into rural communities, killing at least 25 as rescuers struggled to reach people where homes and roads were charred and blanketed with ash. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)
A truck is covered in volcanic ash spewed by Volcan de Fuego, or Volcano of Fire, in Escuintla, Guatemala, Monday, June 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

“It is very difficult for us to identify them because some of the dead lost their features or their fingerprints” from the red-hot flows, said Fanuel Garcia, director of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences.

Volcan de Fuego (“Fire Volcano” in Spanish), located near the popular tourist city Antigua, has erupted more than 60 times since 1574, making it one of Central America’s most active volcanoes. An eruption in 2012 caused the evacuations of nearly 33,000. In this most recent eruption, the rock layer at the tip of the volcano exploded upwards and mixed with hot gasses and ash before collapsing into itself in the form of pyroclastic flows.  Many of the towns affected are located in the foothills of the volcano, which makes it difficult to escape fast-moving flows. 

“Not everyone escaped, I think they were buried,” Consuelo Hernandez, a resident of a town inundated by the flows, told CONRED, a government agency centered around disaster reduction. “We saw the lava was pouring through the corn fields, and we ran toward a hill.”

Ricardo Reyes, was also forced to quickly flee; “The only thing we could do was run with my family and we left our possessions in the house,” he told the BBC. “Now that all the danger has passed, I came to see how our house was – everything is a disaster.”

An estimated two million people have been impacted by the eruption and over 3,000 have been evacuated. Authorities fear that further volcanic activity and mudslides carrying volcanic debris could worsen the situation.

“Fuego is a very active volcano. It has deposited quite a bit of loose volcanic material and it is also in a rain-heavy area, so when heavy rains hit the volcano, that is going to be washing the deposits away into these mudflows which carry a lot of debris and rock,” Volcanologist Dr. Janine Krippner told the BBC, “They are extremely dangerous and deadly as well.”

By Tuesday, there were no further reported eruptions. Emergency authorities continued to scour the impacted area for survivors and victims.

Fuego is the second major eruption to garner headlines this spring, following the Kilauea eruption in Hawaii which began in early May. Though Kilauea’s eruption has lasted over a month, engulfing 7.7 square miles of the island’s surface and destroying an estimated 300 structures, it has yet to cause any reported deaths. This is partially due to lava’s slow moving nature–allowing people time to evacuate from their homes. In Fuego’s case, the residents of the surrounding communities were quickly overwhelmed by scorching ash, lava fragments, and rocks moving hundreds of miles per hour, leaving little to no time to flee.

Sources and Further Reading:

Guatemala volcano killed dozens with its pyroclastic flow. Here’s what that is. – The Washington Post

Guatemala Volcano’s Death Toll, Now at 65, Is Likely to Rise – The New York Times

Guatemala volcano: Satellite video shows what eruption looked like from space – The Independent

Guatemalans struggle to recover the dead buried by volcano eruption – CNN

‘Everything Is A Disaster’: Guatemala’s Fuego Volcano Erupts, Killing At Least 69 – NPR

Guatemala volcano: Search after deadly eruption – BBC News

Kilauea Volcano Eruption Filled In Hawaii’s Biggest Lake In Hours, And Is Now Reshaping Coastline – Forbes

Why is Guatemala’s volcanic eruption so much deadlier than Hawaii’s? – CNN

[Featured image: Volcan de Fuego, or Volcano of Fire, blows outs a thick cloud of ash, as seen from Alotenango, Guatemala, Sunday, June 3, 2018. One of Central America’s most active volcanos erupted in fiery explosions of ash and molten rock Sunday, killing people and injuring many others while a towering cloud of smoke blanketed nearby villages in heavy ash. (AP Photo/Santiago Billy)]