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Italy's Mt. Etna Volcano Remains Active - 2002-12-06

The Mount Etna volcano in Sicily continues to send lava down the mountain and thick black ash into the air, as it has since it resumed activity just over a month ago. While the lava flows seem to have slowed down and no longer appear to threaten any of the towns on the slopes, residents have begun to ask themselves whether the volcano's activity has become more explosive than in the past.

Burning red-hot lava flows down Mount Etna consuming a pine forest as firefighters monitor its direction to make sure it does not become a hazard to people and buildings. The road up to the Sapienza Refuge, the last remaining tourist site on the mountain, has been closed.

The ski season would normally have already begun. But this year the ski lift was swallowed by the lava, and it has become too dangerous to allow tourist cars to drive up the mountain. The latest volcanic activity began October 27. In late November, it forced the local Sicilian authorities to call in the army to build a wall of earth to save the Sapienza Refuge building.

Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano, continues to spew lava in a spectacular display, which lights up the sky at night. Clouds of black ash drift as far as Africa, and have been forcing Italian authorities to close Catania airport on a regular basis.

But in spite of the inconvenience and danger, residents here love their volcano and say they could not live without it. They claim they do not live in fear of Etna.

Local resident Mariapaola Vitalini says she is a little scared but not because of the lava, which gives you enough time to run away. What scares her are the earthquakes.

Several quakes have shaken the mountain recently, sending the people fleeing from their homes. The latest tremors caused a school's roof to collapse this week but no one was injured.

In spite of the latest activity, residents and local officials are optimistic. They say Etna is not a volcano that kills.

Fire fighter Orazio Rapisarda says Etna is a good volcano. He says its lava is not very acidic. So the lava does not move quickly and there is sufficient time to save people and homes.

But Mr. Rapisarda acknowledges something about the volcano's activity has changed. He recalls that in the past there were always many small eruptions, while more recently he says there have been fewer eruptions but they have been larger. This has led some people to wonder whether a large, explosive eruption could be coming soon. But experts, such as Professor Giovanni Orsi, say they do not expect this to happen.

"There is not in short time the possibility to build up a large magma chamber and high pressure. You need a lot of pressure within the magma chamber to generate a highly explosive eruption," he said.

Mt. Etna's last big eruption was in 1992. Experts agree that the volcano seems to be gradually moving toward a period of more explosive and more dangerous activity. But, they say, apart from having to live with its constant rumbling, the towns on the slopes of the volcano are safe, at least for the time being.