Living near the summit of one of the world's most active volcanoes, Kii Morse remembers a childhood devoid of urban distractions like mini-malls and multiplex movie theaters.

But who needs civilization when you're present at the creation?

On Friday, Kilauea marked 20 years of continuous eruption that has added 544 acres of lava and black sand beach to the Big Island's southeastern shore.

For Morse and other residents of this volcano-top hamlet, entertainment has been a hike into the community's jagged back yard, across decades-old lava flows, to watch nature's most spectacular fire show.

"It was like a drive-in theater," Morse, 41, recalled from the early days of the eruption. "It was what you did at night."

Visitors numbering up to thousands a day -- many of whom call themselves "volcano junkies" -- have been able to witness the same show that Morse and others say never gets old.

"It's the beauty of the earth being born right here," Michael Matsumoto of Oahu said after a visit in July.

Lava continuously oozes from Kilauea, sometimes spewing skyward in spectacular fashion as the molten rock seeks out the coast.

Over two decades, lava has buried 43 square miles, creating black sand beaches and an ever-changing coastline. The eruption has become a cottage industry in Volcano, a village of about 3,000 scattered residents near the rim of the volcano's canyon-like caldera.

But Kilauea's slow flow also has destroyed homes, and people have died trying to get too close.

"There is a possibility of disaster, but we try not to think about it," Morse said. "For us, it's just life."

"It's just a marvelous thing," said Don Swanson, scientist in charge at the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. "It's important for the psyche to have natural events like this that are longer lasting than just the brief storms, or what not, that hit.

"This gives us real opportunity to contemplate our environment."

The current Pu'u 'O'o-Kupaianaha eruption is Kilauea's 55th episode, and ranks as the most voluminous outpouring of lava on the volcano's east rift zone in the past six centuries, according to the observatory.

Beginning in 1983, a series of short-lived lava fountains built the massive cinder-and-spatter cone of Pu'u 'O'o to the point that it now is visible at sea.

"In 20 years, I've seen Pu'u 'O'o formed to where it's . . . a navigable landmark," said resident Steve Young, who moved to Volcano three months before the current eruption. "I mean, boom! This thing wasn't here 20 years ago. Now airplanes and boats use this thing as a marker. That's a major event on the planet."

Over the years, the eruptions have shifted, sending lava down different slopes, covering much of Chain of Craters Road but at the same time providing a marvelous slow-moving spectacle.

In May, a new vent opened on the western side and sparked the largest forest fire in the park in 15 years. The flows reached the ocean in July, bringing as many as 4,000 visitors a day to view the glowing mass and its fiery entry into the Pacific, according to the observatory.

"You can see it on television, but to come and see it live is unreal," said John Bayliss, of Gloucester, England, who recently visited the volcano with his wife, Jean. "You can't imagine the actual Earth moving and the heat and the actual growing of land. It's difficult to believe that a lot of this island is actually grown up from the volcano."

Volcanologists are not sure how long the eruption might last.

"There's no evidence of it coming to an end," Swanson said. "There's no slow decline, no decline in the amount of gas that's been going off."

Aside from the long-running show, the volcano also has served as a reminder to residents about the precarious balance between civilization and nature.

Though the lava has destroyed mostly vegetation on its march to the ocean, it also has claimed close to 200 structures, mostly homes, over the past 20 years.

One tourist died in 1993 when a slab of cooled lava he was standing on broke and fell into the ocean. A few others have died of health issues stemming from the arduous hikes to the lava and the noxious fumes released when it hits the water.

But Kilauea has helped the area in one way.

"For me, it's been a big, big help for business's sake," said Rory Tripp, owner of Kilauea General Store and a few other properties in Volcano. "It's brought in quite a bit of tourists, and being that it's been as active as it has, a lot of locals have been coming out where normally they wouldn't venture out this way."

"This gives us real opportunity to contemplate our environment," U.S. Geological Survey scientist Don Swanson said of the Kilauea volcano.