ON MOUNT ETNA, Sicily — A stream of lava burned the base of a cable car, overflowed an earth barrier and came dangerously close Tuesday to a tourist complex on the slopes of Mount Etna, Europe's biggest and most active volcano.
The cable car station caught fire overnight, as the river of lava was making its way down toward the tourist station, Rifugio Sapienza. The cable station was about three miles away from the souvenir shacks, wooden stands, restaurants and a hostel that make up the tourist complex.
Emergency crews and army bulldozers worked to reinforce the walls of earth and rock around Rifugio Sapienza and divert the tongues of magma, which last week also destroyed the station's parking lot and three central pylons of Mount Etna's ski lift.
But the flow of lava was advancing. On Tuesday, it was about 165 feet from Rifugio Sapienza, said Salvatore Nunnari of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology.
Rifugio Sapienza, which is halfway up the mountain, has been cleared of people.
Nunnari said that the volcano's intense activity was constantly feeding the molten streams of lava, making them bigger and bigger. The one threatening Rifugio Sapienza was, in some points, nearly 500 feet wide.
The area was also still covered with clouds of black volcanic ash, but the airport in Catania, which had been closed for hours Monday, was kept open.
Etna has been spewing lava and ash from fractures on its southern slope for about two weeks. Thunderous booms have accompanied the spurts, which have reached hundreds of yards high.
Its activity has been unpredictable. The rivers of lava slow down one day, then suddenly speed up again. On Sunday and Monday, the volcano appeared relatively calm.
No towns are threatened, but the lava has been licking the edge of Rifugio Sapienza for days now. Last week, a convoy of military bulldozers was sent in to reinforce the exhausted crews of workers using backhoes to build earthworks around the station.
Etna's last major eruption was in 1992. The volcano, which towers 10,860 feet above Sicily, comes to life every few months.
On another front, the river of lava threatening the village of Nicolosi, on the slopes of the mountain, appeared to have stopped advancing. It has remained stationary in the past days at about 2 1/2 miles from the village, home to about 6,000 people.
Although no towns have been damaged in the latest eruption, there have been losses in agriculture and tourism. The government has earmarked about $8 million to help the area recover, but locals are pressing for more.
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