HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - When Stacy Welch moved to Leilani Estates, she underestimated the power of Kilauea’s fiery flow.
“I came here and looked at the Pahoa flow from 2015 before I bought the property and thought, ‘That’s all it did?’” she said.
She bought a vacant lot along Kupono Street and built herself a tiny home. There, she lived with her daughter and an array of pets.
It was her dream to live in paradise ― and an eruption was the least of her worries.
“I had no real concept of what it could do,” she said.
So when talk of a potential lava outbreak started to buzz through the community, Welch brushed it off. She thought the roughly 23 miles between her home and the summit of Kilauea was more than enough to keep her out of harm’s way.
“I just kind of thought, ‘Oh yeah, there’s no way,’” she said.
Then one day, while working at Volcano House at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, she got word that lava broke out in Leilani.
She immediately thought of her daughter and pets and worried if they were safe.
Her daughter had already began packing up the house and was ready to leave. But when Welch returned home, she was determined to shelter in place.
“I said, ‘Well I don’t see any lava, I don’t smell any lava. I can hear the sirens ― maybe we can just wait,’” she recalled.
Later that night, around 1 a.m., her family woke to a strong earthquake that shook the house.
Keeping a calm front, she opened her front door and saw the soft orange glow from nearby fissures illuminating the dark night sky.
Seconds later, the emergency sirens sounded. It was the final wake-up call for Welch to evacuate her family.
For the next 121 days, Welch, her daughter and the family pets lived with limited privacy in cramped tents alongside other evacuees at a Red Cross shelter in Pahoa.
Adding insult to injury, Volcano House closed at the height of the eruption, forcing her to find other sources of income.
Over the next few months, income dwindled and worry grew over her nearly-completed home. She didn’t know if everything she worked so hard to build was burnt and buried under lava, or still standing.
She tried to make the best of the situation.
“There’s no insurance, there’s no mortgage, but now we have to start with absolutely nothing if we lose everything,” she said.
Welch was able to hold down a job working on a golf course in Waikoloa. She struggled with the long commute across the island that began well before the rising of the sun.
Some nights she would make it back to the shelter in time for dinner, and other nights, it would be a struggle to find food.
During that time, Leilani Estates transformed into something similar to a war zone.
“The booming. It gave us complete PTSD,” she said. “It was like bombs dropping and you never knew where they were coming from. You couldn’t see anything but you could hear them right next to you through the trees.”
Her home escaped the wrath of nearby fissures 8 and 9, and she hoped no more fissures would open along Kupono Street.
She was at work in Waikoloa when she heard that fissure 24 started to spew lava. It was closer to her home that any of the others.
“I got here just in time to see it, like water falling and coming into the canyon and coming down towards my house,” she said, pointing out the large crater that carved its place in the earth just behind her home.
Her house remained standing, unscathed by the power of Pele. But the landscape surrounding her now lonely lot was now unrecognizable.
Sympathy for her neighbors who lost everything is all she could feel as she looked over the forever changed landscape in the year since the eruption.
“All the possessions you still think that you have are completely under the lava and that’s something that’s mind-boggling to me,” she said. “You think you have this stuff, and you had this stuff, but now it’s completely gone.”
And as Welch continues to fully absorb the historic event she witnessed, she faces a new problem: Securing her property from curious and nettlesome onlookers ― some having blatantly overlooked the boundaries of private property, welcoming themselves onto her lot to get a better look at the devastation.
Calling authorities is limited in its effectiveness, so she explains to them how sensitive the situation still is.
“It’s learning how to deal with them in a polite, respectful manner, and letting them know that people are trying to heal here and that now is not the time to be doing this,” she said.
She’s hopeful that one day the area will find the right balance between welcoming visitors and serving as a peaceful neighborhood for residents.
“The healing is just going to go on for years and years,” she said, knowing that it will take time before life returns to some sense of normalcy.
Having gone through an eruption of Kilauea first-hand, and nearly living in the path of Pele, she now has a stronger grip on the reality of what a fiery flow can do. Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I look back now and think I am so blessed. I get to wake up on fissure 8, 24 and 9. I get to be the protector and repairer of this land, yet I get to go to work at Volcano House and tell my story where it all started,” she said.