Pyroclastic flows contain a high-density mix of hot lava blocks, pumice, ash and volcanic gas. They move at very high speed down volcanic slopes, typically following valleys. Most pyroclastic flows consist of two parts: a lower (basal) flow of coarse fragments that moves along the ground, and a turbulent cloud of ash that rises above the basal flow. Ash may fall from this cloud over a wide area downwind from the pyroclastic flow.
With rock fragments ranging in size from ash to boulders that travel across the ground at speeds typically greater than 80 km per hour (50 mph), pyroclastic flows knock down, shatter, bury or carry away nearly all objects and structures in their path. The extreme temperatures of rocks and gas inside pyroclastic flows, generally between 200°C and 700°C (390-1300°F), can ignite fires and melt snow and ice.
Pyroclastic flows vary considerably in size and speed, but even relatively small flows that move less than 5 km (3 mi) from a volcano can destroy buildings, forests, and farmland. On the margins of pyroclastic flows, death and serious injury to people and animals may result from burns and inhalation of hot ash and gases.
Pyroclastic flows generally follow valleys or other low-lying areas and, depending on the volume of rock debris carried by the flow, they can deposit layers of loose rock fragments to depths ranging from less than one meter to more than 200 m (up to about 700 ft).Pyroclastic flows can also lead to secondary hazards, especially flooding and lahars by: