PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - [Update 8/28 at 5:30 p.m.]
Scientists with U.S. Geological Survey say steam was spotted rising above a crack extending east beyond the end of the lava pad, suggesting that lava was once again advancing within a crack below ground.
The most distant steaming area was 7.4 miles from the vent and 1.6 miles from east boundary of the Wao Kele o Puna Forest Reserve.
Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey who have been carefully monitoring the lava flow heading toward lower Puna say Wednesday's aerial assessment indicates there is little to no activity in the area that once posed the greatest threat to the Kaohe Homesteads subdivision.
"It's difficult to say for sure how this will play out, because conditions out there change abruptly. At the moment there doesn't appear to be any active lava, but that can change at any time," explained Tim Orr, a geologist with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
Orr has studied the east rift zone of Kilauea for years and has been on every flyover of the June 27 lava flow from Pu'u O'o Crater in the last few weeks. Orr says after inching within two miles of the perimeter of a Pahoa neighborhood, the lava flow has only moved approximately 300 feet in last two days and less than 100 feet since Tuesday.
"There is no imminent threat to those communities. There's less threat today than there was a few days ago. Regardless, the flows are still active and they will continue to advance. At the moment they're not advancing very fast and that's one good thing about this -- there's plenty of time. If these flows keep advancing there will be plenty of time for folks to take action," Orr said.
Hawaii County Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira says, if necessary, officials will issue an evacuation notice no less than 36 hours prior to any anticipation the flow might reach a subdivision.
"We may do it sooner. It depends on the rate and the speed of how the flow is moving, so we're really maintaining a close communication with Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. We want to give the community as much notice as possible and that's why we're having those meetings now," said Oliveira.
USGS geologists say they are cautiously optimistic, but that does not mean Puna is in the clear just yet. Even though scientists did not observe any surface activity nor could they see any lava moving through cracks Wednesday, Orr says that doesn't mean the situation can't change.
According to Orr, the area the flow is traveling through along the east rift zone of Kilauea is very tumultuous terrain with heavy vegetation and a lot of ground cracks the lava can spill into, which could significantly impact direction and speed.
"This area is very complex with the topography. There's a lots of large ground cracks out there. Those ground cracks are not visible from the air, at least most of them are not, so that's sort of the wild card in this situation when the flow is on the ground. Once we can see them, we can make estimations about where they might go or forecast where they might go based upon flow paths, but with the cracks all bets are off," Orr said.
Oliveira says his office has been asked on multiple occasions whether there plans to attempt to divert the lava flow. He says he knows nature will do what it wants to do.
"Any discussion of diversion would be done with the utmost respect for the culture and sensitivity to the culture. If we were to interfere with Mother Nature we then take liability for what we do and I would hate to be in a position where we did something that changed the outcome and affected another community. So, I think we just need to be accepting of Mother Nature. It's just our environment. We need to respect that and work with that and adjust our lives accordingly," said Oliveira.
USGS geologists will be back up in the air Friday to map the latest flow track, but civil defense officials have their next flyover planned for first thing Thursday morning.
The next community meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Pahoa Community Center. USGS experts will be on hand along with Hawai'i County Civil Defense to answer questions. In the meantime, officials say the best thing residents can do is prepare is to identify whatever important documents or belongings should be packed up, if an alert is issued.