19 lava outbreaks, a jungle ablaze and a Hawaii volcano still poised to explode

Trevor Hughes
Fumes from the lava flow near the Leilani Estates neighborhood as seen on May 13, 2018, have killed surrounding vegetation.

PAHOA, Hawaii — Frustration, anxiety and unpredictable 2,000-degree lava are taking their toll on volcano evacuees on Hawaii’s Big Island while they await an “imminent” eruption that could rain car-size boulders and ash onto this tropical paradise.

Nearly 2,000 people have been barred from their homes for 10 days as the Kilauea volcano pours lava through a rural neighborhood about 35 miles from Hilo, the island’s largest city.

At least 36 structures have been destroyed by lava flows, including 26 homes. Plumes of poisonous gases are killing off trees and grasses left untouched by the lava.

And now the volcano itself appears ready to explode, although the damage is expected to radiate only about 12 miles from the crater, leaving Hilo untouched.

That’s little comfort for the evacuees and their community who each day see the lava flow farther from the volcano toward the ocean, setting the thick jungle ablaze and covering roads with rapidly solidifying rock more than 10 feet thick. 

 From roadblocks several miles from the flows, visitors can hear the lava roar and thunder as it boils to the Earth’s surface.

“A lot of people are scared,” said Tiana Dunn, who helped organize a community supply depot for evacuees in Pahoa. “People are still a bit sad and in disbelief.”

Scientists have identified 19 lava outbreaks in the Leilani Estates neighborhood since  the eruption May 3 and have closed the area to the public. 

Forrest Lanning, a program manager at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tweeted Friday that a summit-pressure explosion at Kilauea was likely in 24 to 48 hours. Authorities are pleading for caution, reminding residents through hourly radio broadcasts that the lava flows are unpredictable and the poisonous gases invisible.

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The United States Geological Survey warned about the possibility of an explosive eruption at the volcano's Halema’uma’u Crater because of  lava flowing from the Kilauea summit lake. Small earthquakes have been hitting the area as lava levels drop and the crater's rim collapses.

"This could generate dangerous debris very near the crater and ashfalls up to tens of miles downwind," the geological survey said. "As of late (Sunday), activity was dominated by lava fountaining (and) explosion of spatter bombs hundreds of feet into the air."

The new danger comes from the lava level inside the volcano dropping. If it falls below the water table, water will pour onto the lava, generating steam that could explode from the summit.

Boulders as big as refrigerators could be tossed a half-mile, and ash plumes could soar as high as 20,000 feet, according to the Hawaii Civil Defense. That eruption could happen anytime, and flight restrictions over the area are already in place.

The Big Island’s economy depends heavily on tourism,  but hotels and airlines are reporting few cancellations. Helicopter flights over the lava flows — always a popular tourist trip — are largely booked days in advance.

Hilo’s restaurants on Sunday night were packed with families celebrating Mother’s Day. At Hilo Shark’s Coffee, tourists browsed the Hawaii Tribune Herald while waiting for salted caramel ice cream, and Pahoa’s Island Naturals grocery store bustled with shoppers.

Still, the effects are being felt: Authorities have ordered some vacation rentals near the lava flow to shutter indefinitely to stretch the community’s water supplies and reduce the number of potential evacuees.

Backed by the towering cloud of smoke and steam, the Pahoa Chiropractic Center proudly tells residents that the doctor has no plans to leave despite the mandatory evacuation of a nearby neighborhood.

Multiple roads in the Pahoa area are closed because of lava flows, and aircraft and drones are barred from flying too close to the flows and crater. The lava oozes like molasses — rarely faster than a walking pace — although it consumes virtually everything in its path and bursts to the surface unexpectedly, throwing molten rock hundreds of feet into the air.

“Stay out of the evacuation area,” the official radio broadcast warns.

But many of the evacuees have nowhere else to go. Property is cheap in the area, starting at around $8,000 for a small plot of land, and many evacuees have little to their name other than their off-grid homes and battered cars. Area residents have swamped evacuees with free clothing, meals and basic supplies, allowing them to remain nearby with their pets at a Red Cross shelter.

Vaaiga Pola-Wilson waits inside a lava-evacuation supply center in Pahoa, Hawaii, on May 13, 2018. Pola-Wilson said her grandchildren gave her the flowers for Mother's Day.

Vaaiga Pola-Wilson, who grew up near Pahoa, said she felt compelled by her faith and connection to the community to help where she can. Sunday night, she sat amid the bustle of the evacuation supply depot and watched as evacuees ate dinner for the 10th time since the lava flows began.

“We are here to be a shoulder to cry on, to comfort them,” she said. “We’ve got to put fear away.”