Like Hawaii, Iceland and its accompanying islands are volcanic. In 1973, a new volcano erupted on the small island of Heimaey, just off Iceland. This eruption was to last six months, spewing lava over Vestmannaeyjar, the island’s main town and harbor, at a rate of up to one hundred and thirty cubic yards of molten lava per second.
The island’s inhabitants knew they could rebuild their town, but it soon became clear that flowing lava would completely seal off the mouth of the only natural harbor on the island. Without a harbor, the livelihood of this fishing community would be ruined. What did they do? They called in the fire department.
While water can’t “put out” a volcano, the Icelanders acted on the theory that enough cold ocean water might cool the lava enough to prematurely solidify a wall, or crust, of lava. This wall of solidified lava could be used to change the direction of the rest of the lava’s flow, and direct it away from the harbor.
The fire department began pumping with the town’s pumps and hoses, and within two months there were enough water pumps and pumping ships in place to deliver over two hundred and fifty gallons of water per second to the advancing lava. It was a dangerous plan, as miles of pipe needed to be laid up the side of the partially solidified lava wall to deliver water higher and higher.
Although half the town was destroyed, the plan to save the harbor was a success. Remarkably, when these firefighters battled a volcano, the firefighters won.