Evacuations broaden as fast-moving lava threatens homes, roads

Lava flows are encroaching on Highway 132, a major access route to lower Puna. (Image: USGS)
Lava flows are encroaching on Highway 132, a major access route to lower Puna. (Image: USGS)
Lava has claimed more than 80 homes in lower Puna and just keeps coming. (Image: Chris Carroll/Facebook)
Lava has claimed more than 80 homes in lower Puna and just keeps coming. (Image: Chris Carroll/Facebook)
This aerial photo shows a lava flow from fissure 8 crossing Pohoiki Road on Monday (Image: USGS)
This aerial photo shows a lava flow from fissure 8 crossing Pohoiki Road on Monday (Image: USGS)
A fast-moving lava flow advances in Leilani Estates. (Image: Warren Fintz Eppix Adventures)
A fast-moving lava flow advances in Leilani Estates. (Image: Warren Fintz Eppix Adventures)

PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A fast-moving lava flow, spewing fountains more than 200 feet into the air, is making its way through lower Puna, sparking immediate evacuations as it covers major roads and threatens more homes in the area.

Around 1 a.m. Wednesday, Hawaii County Civil Defense officials alerted residents in the Kapoho area, including Kapoho Beach Lots and Vacation Lots, to evacuate as the fast-moving lava flow near Highway 132 picked up speed and advanced toward the area.

The flow is threatening to cut off Beach Road, the only remaining access point out of the area.

"You are at risk of being isolated due to possible lava inundation of Beach Road near Four Corners," the warning message said.

At the present rate of the lava flow, the road could be blocked sometime Wednesday morning. As of 7 a.m., lava was about 3 miles away from Four Corners and was advancing in pauses and surges at a rate of about 600 yards per hour, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Another fissure — no. 18 — was producing a lava flow that was moving downslope at a rate of 100 yards per hour. That one was less than a mile away from Highway 137, the USGS said.

On Tuesday lava flows crossed Highway 132, leaving Beach Road as the only road into lower Puna.

Hawaii County Civil Defense closed the highway on Tuesday morning between Lava Tree State Park and Four Corners as a lava flow advanced. And about 3:30 p.m., the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that lava was encroaching on the thoroughfare at several points.

"It took the road," said Talmadge Magno, civil defense administrator. "We lost 132 and there's no power down to that area and, as explained to me, it's gonna be an extended outage."

Other developments Tuesday included:

  • Officials said lava has now claimed at least 112 structures in lower Puna, including 20 homes destroyed in the last 48 hours alone. Some 71 homes have been destroyed by lava since the first outbreak happened nearly four weeks ago.

  • Lava flows crossed the main access road to the Puna Geothermal Venture plant and were threatening to cover several wells. There were no reports of an uncontrolled release of hydrogen sulfide, as has been feared.

  • Active eruptions, including fountains, are sending Pele's hair (thin strands of volcanic glass) and volcanic emissions downwind.

The activity comes after a weekend of dramatic eruptions, which claimed a number of homes.

Residents watched from afar and up close as much of the fissure system — from the middle of Leilani Estates to the east end of the line of outbreaks — spewed out lava, creating fountains that topped at least 200 feet and triggering flows that covered several properties.

And on Sunday night, after authorities went door-to-door to urge remaining residents in a portion of Leilani Estates to get out, firefighters scrambled to rescue a man whose driveway was covered by fast-moving lava.

They were able to guide him out of the area on foot using a back way through Nohea Street. The man reported no injuries and denied medical treatment, according to authorities.

"His only way out was through his back door and through the forest," said Talmadge Magno, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator. "Kind of disturbingly, some people just refused to leave and so it kind of gives us terrifying insight into what's going on out there."

He added that the episode underscores the need for residents remaining in areas threatened by lava to be prepared to flee quickly. "They need to know their escape routes," he said.

Over the weekend, Josephine Kanani Keau learned that her family's home was lost to lava. A family friend shot photos of the home as a wall of lava advanced and as fire claimed the property.

"I never got to ... walk in my house one last time," she said, on her family's GoFundMe page, which had been started to help offset evacuation costs.

Keau said she's struggling to explain what happened to her son.

"All I can tell him is, 'Baby, I want to go home, too, but Pele took our home.'"

Petra Weisenbauer is also reeling from disaster whose end is nowhere in sight. She has lived in Leilani Estates for the last 20 years, running a bed and breakfast from her slide of paradise.

But three weeks ago, Weisenbauer issued $25,000 in refunds to customers who will never get the chance to fall asleep to the sound of cocqi frogs as she watched and waited for the possibility lava would wipe it all away.

She got the call just before midnight Sunday and was able to get in Monday morning to watch a chapter of her life come to an end. Now, Weisenbauer — who just got her degree in marriage and family therapy this past February — is looking toward a new beginning.

"From one second to the next, no transition," she said.

In addition to vigorous eruptions, authorities are concerned about worsening ground cracking, air quality issues, ashfall in communities downwind of Kilauea's summit, and lava threatening key thoroughfares, something that could spur additional evacuations.

Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions — home to about 2,000 — have been under mandatory evacuation orders since May 3. But last week, civil defense authorities acknowledged that at least 200 people have remained in the communities.

Meanwhile, lava flows continue to cascade into the ocean in lower Puna near MacKenzie State Park, creating plumes of "laze" — clouds of gas and shards of glass — that could force nearby residents to evacuate at a moment's notice.

As thousands of evacuees grow increasingly concerned about what the future holds, geologists say there's no way to tell when the volcanic activity will end. About 300 people are staying at three American Red Cross emergency shelters, while hundreds more are staying with friends and family.

Authorities continue to urge residents in lower Puna to be prepared to flee quickly, either because of the risk of lava flows or higher levels of sulfur dioxide.

A presidential disaster declaration has been issued for the ongoing Kilauea eruptions, which authorities have compared to months-long volcanic activity in February 1955, in which at least 24 separate volcanic vents opened up and lava covered about 3,900 acres over a period of 88 days.

This story will be updated.

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