Hazardous Lava Flow Approaches Hawaiian Town

Slow but steady, the flowing lava from an erupting volcano on Big Island, Hawaii is only moving about 10 yards per hour at some 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The former popular tourist attraction now threatens the lives of Hawaiian residents.

Officials on Saturday told residents of Pahoa, a large town on the Big Island, to prepare for evacuation. At 3:50 a.m. on Sunday, the flow crossed a road at the edge of town and is now only six-tenths of a mile from the town’s main street. Because of the fluctuating pace, authorities are unsure of when or if the flow will reach homes. Officials have been going to the about 50 homes door-to-door to keep them updated. The possibility of evacuation, however, is closer than ever before.

Kilauea volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983 and has traditionally moved south towards the sea with little interaction with residential areas. The 30-year eruption is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and the current cycle has had 61-recorded eruptions. The lava lake bubbles at Kilauea’s summit in Halema’uma’u Crater, an area off-limits to the public because of health hazards such as high levels of sulfur dioxide gas and explosions.

Still, the seaward lava flow is a popular tourist attraction with roughly 2.6 million annual visitors. Its constant activity has inspired volcano-centric vacations, tours, and rental houses like Chalet Kilauea or Hawaii Volcano Vacations. But adrenaline junkies may soon have to choose another hot getaway.

On June 27, 2014, the flow took a dangerous turn with an eruption from the crater’s northeast section. At about 35 yards wide, it has been erratically moving towards the large town of Pahoa for weeks. The flow advanced at an increased rate within the past week, pushing into residential roads. The encroachment onto residential areas has left in its wake burning asphalt, smoke and concern.

Officials such as Darryl Oliveira, Hawaii County’s director of civil defense, is sure that the town is prepared should the lava encroach further. The tipping point will be if it advances at a rate where it would be difficult to move out of the way with little notice, says Oliveira. The hazardous materials within the lava and from debris in its path, such as tires or stockpiled chemicals, also poses a health risk. Authorities feel prepared to trigger a mandatory evacuation order should the need arise.

While the lava flow poses a health risk, authorities feel confident in their preparation and protocol. Visitors to Kilauea volcano may now have a newfound respect for breathtaking attraction as evidence of its dangerous potential flows right to people’s doorsteps.