Officials in Hawaii say there has been an "explosive eruption" at the Kilauea volcano's summit, sending a plume of ash more than 9,000 meters into the air early Thursday.
"The resulting ash plume will cover the surrounding area," the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said, urging residents of the Big Island in the path of the ash plume to shelter in place.
The explosion at the summit came after two weeks of volcanic activity that sent lava flows into neighborhoods and destroyed at least 26 homes. Scientists said the eruption was the most powerful in recent days, though it probably lasted only a few minutes.
Authorities have been warning residents and airplanes to stay away from parts of the Big Island after the volcano spewed a huge plume of ash and large rocks.
Such eruptions, last seen nearly a century ago, have been a looming threat since Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, began erupting May 3.
Besides the ash and rocks, officials are also warning residents of sulfur dioxide gas that can affect eyes and breathing. Extended exposure to sulfur dioxide can increase risk of bronchitis and upper respiratory infections.
Officials distributed ash masks and asked residents to seek medical help if they are affected by the toxic gas emitting from 21 fissures created by the volcano.
Governor David Ige announced the formation of a joint task force that could handle mass evacuations of the Big Island's Puna district if lava from Kilauea volcano covers major roads and isolates the area.
The Kilauea volcano has been erupting periodically for more than three decades. Lava flows from the volcano, one of five on the island, have buried an area about 125 square kilometers, according to the USGS.
Scientists say they cannot predict how long the current eruption will last.