Volcanic Smoke Blankets Parts of Big Island

Keala Ahuna
Keala Ahuna
Harry Kim
Harry Kim
John Peard
John Peard

HILO, Hawaii (KHNL) -- Health hazards on the Big Island of Hawaii as Halema'uma'u Crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park continues to spew out plumes of smoke and ash.

"This would be the equivalent to heavy urban pollution in an urban environment," said John Peard, a project manager with Hawaii Department of Health's Emergency Evaluation Response Office.

Health officials say ten times the normal amount of sulfur dioxide is in the air.

As of Wednesday afternoon, no evacuation orders have been issued but if things get worse, people near Kilauea Volcano could be forced to leave.

Madame Pele's smoky dance lures a crowd to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

"It's just amazing," said Keala Ahuna, a Honoka'a, Hawaii, resident.

She was just two years old when she saw a volcano eruption with her family. Now more than 25 years later, she's back to share this moment with her sons.

"Having it happened then and now and the kids to see something that really happens here," said Ahuna. "It's something."

Although Halema'uma'u is a spectacular sight, plumes of volcanic ash are causing a statewide health hazard.

"It's an irritant gas, so it's affecting eyes, ears, nose, skin, and respiratory system," said Peard.

Normally the crater vents sulfur dioxide at the rate of about 200 tons per day. But recently, it's jumped to more than two thousand tons per day.

"So we're up at approximately ten times the emission rates of sulfur dioxide," said Jeff Sutton, a gas geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Residents say it's affecting their breathing and quality of life.

"I've lived here 15 years, and it's never been this bad," said Neil Felton, an Ocean View, Hawaii, resident.

The park service issues a warning, a helicopter surveys the area, and health experts say long term exposure could lead to some chronic respiratory issues for people on the Big Island.

"We just hope the scenario doesn't get worse that what we see now," said Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim.

"And if it does get worse, what would be the county's response?" asked KHNL.

"Our response is hopefully nature will give us time to anticipate what is happening, and if not, we'll have to identify the risk as soon as possible with the people seen at the meeting," said Mayor Kim. "The worst case scenario is we have to relocate, and evacuate people, and we'll do that."

And the impact isn't limited to just the Big Island.

"On heavy vog (volcanic smog) days, I mean, it affects Oahu now," said Peard.

So whatever happens on the island of Hawaii could have far reaching impacts across the state.

Federal and state officials will continue to monitor the situation 24 hours a day, and notify people if conditions get worse. Resources are available if an evacuation becomes necessary.