After losing his home to lava, a Big Island man finds a new purpose: Helping others

Fissure 17 claims another home as eruption continues near Lanipuna Gardens

PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two weeks ago, Heath Dalton, his wife, and two children fled their home in lower Puna.

They lived on Kupono Street in Leilani Estates. That is, until earthquakes shook their neighborhood and authorities told residents to evacuate.

"I told my wife and kids to get out and that I would finish packing," Dalton said. "I went to take a box of toys to the kids."

Dalton brought some of the belongings back to his family, who were staying at a friend's house during the evacuation.

"As I was leaving, I asked the officer to let me back in to gather more belongings. An hour later, though, he wouldn't let me back in," he said.

What he didn't know: A massive fissure had erupted in the neighborhood, pouring lava into the streets and releasing toxic gas.

That same eruption would claim his home — something he wouldn't be able to confirm until the following day, when the family returned to gather more belongings. "I could see the flames coming up from my house," he said.

Dozens of homes have been destroyed by ongoing eruptions in lower Puna, which show no signs of stopping.

Dalton said when he saw his home in flames, he immediately realized he'd lost everything.

But he also felt a strange sense of relief. That stress of not knowing was overwhelming, he said.

And in the days since, as his family continues to look for a more permanent place to say, he's found a new sense of purpose: Helping others.

Like many in Leilani Estates, he's realized the way to deal with a disaster with no clear end in sight is to try to bring comfort to those who are suffering.

And so, shoulder to shoulder with his neighbors, he's been helping people take belongings from their homes or clearing debris.

"If a tree was on the road, I would take out my chainsaw and cut it to get it out of the way," he said.

He's also relayed important information to residents, letting them know when it was safe to go to their homes.

"One neighbor said their house was on fire as they were grabbing their belongings. They said that they would not have had anything to grab had I not told them that they could get in," he said. "Another neighbor had cinder raining down on their roof as they were gathering their belongings."

Along the way, Dalton fielded questions from his neighbors: You lost everything, they said. Why are you doing this?

"I would say, why not if I can keep that from happening to someone else?" he said. "If I can save one person from what we went through, it's all worth it."

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