Historic and recent (last 2,000 years) eruptions on the active volcanic island of Tenerife have been predominantly effusive, indicating that this is the most probable type of activity to be expected in the near future. In the past, lava flow invasion caused major damage on the island, and as the population and infrastructure have increased dramatically since the last eruption, lava flows are the most important short-term volcanic risk on Tenerife. Hence, an understanding of lava flow behaviour is vital to manage risks from lava flows and minimise future losses on the island. This paper focuses on the lava flows from the historic eruptions in Tenerife, providing new data on the volumes emitted, advance rates and the timing of the emplacement of flows. The studies show three main stages in the development of unconfined flow fields: the first stage, corresponding to the fast advance of the initial fronts during the first 24–36 h of eruption (reaching calculated velocities of up to 1.1 m/s); the second stage, in which fronts stagnate; and a third stage, in which secondary lava flows develop from breakouts 4–7 days after the initial eruption and farther extend the flow field (velocities of up to 0.02 m/s have been calculated for this stage). The breakouts identified originated at sites both proximal and distal to the vent and, in both cases, caused damage through lengthening and widening the original flow field. Hence, the probability of damage from lavas to land and property is highest during stages 1 and 3, and this should be accounted for when planning the response to a future effusive eruption. Tenerife’s lava flows display a similar behaviour to that of lava flows on volcanoes characterised by basaltic effusive activity (such as Etna or Kilauea), indicating the possibility of applying forecasting models developed at those frequently active volcanoes to Tenerife.