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WATCHING AND WAITING: Lava flow within 0.7 miles from Kaohe; threat level expected to be upgraded soon

September 4, 2014 - 8:33am

State and county officials visited Wednesday with residents of the 40-or-so households within Kaohe Homesteads in advance of a possible evacuation because of encroaching lava.

The effort came following a community meeting Tuesday night in Pahoa, at which Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Scientist-in-Charge Jim Kauahikaua told a crowd of more than 100 people that HVO expects to soon increase the lava threat level from a “watch” to a “warning,” as the lava flow could be about a week away from reaching the neighborhood.

On Wednesday, a Hawaii County Civil Defense worker was joined by about a half-dozen public safety and state agency representatives “with different missions” to assess the situation on the ground, alert residents to the current situation and help them prepare to move livestock, county Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira said.

“We’re going door to door, making sure we haven’t missed anybody,” he said. “Last night, someone called me and said he hadn’t heard anything about the lava, and that he lives off the grid and wanted to know what was happening. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen with other people off the radar.”

Oliveira said he was working with a rough estimate of the number of residents in the neighborhood — located between Pahoa and the Wao Kele o Puna Forest Reserve — as many people might live off the beaten path.

“We’ve been talking with the Neighborhood Watch, and even they don’t have a real good understanding of the number of people that may be living in the subdivision,” Oliveira said.

If the threat level is raised in the area, Kaohe would become restricted to residents and property owners only, and work may begin to create alternate routes for lower Puna residents.

In an update provided Wednesday afternoon, HVO reported the farthest edge of the lava flow had encroached to within 0.7 miles of Kaohe, and about a mile from the closest home in the subdivision, Oliveira said.

He added that despite the references to Kaohe being closest to the flow at this time, that could change rapidly, and other residents in the area should remain vigilant.

“We’ve seen such erratic behavior, it’s hard to predict what it will do next,” he said.

During a Wednesday morning overflight of the flow, Oliveira said scientists and Civil Defense officials observed that lava was steadily pouring onto the surface of the terrain from a steaming crack in the ground. The lava has worked its way toward populated areas by following a network of large cracks in the terrain, making it difficult to track the flow’s speed and direction.

At Tuesday’s meeting, lower Puna residents were warned by Oliveira to begin making preparations in the event of an evacuation.

“It could continue to be a frustrating experience for all of you,” he said.

Civil Defense plans to provide an evacuation notice for Kaohe at least five days before the flow reaches the subdivision.

Oliveira said after the meeting that such a decision might be triggered by HVO increasing the lava flow’s threat level. By press time Wednesday, the threat level had not changed.

The meeting was the fourth opportunity for the public to ask Civil Defense and HVO staff about the flow, which had advanced 8.2 miles since emerging from Puu Oo on June 27.

Oliveira said that diverting the flow is not being considered since such actions could threaten another community. There also are cultural concerns to consider, he said. Kauahikaua noted attempts to block the 1960 flow from Kapoho failed.

Kauahikaua said lava is flowing from the northeast flank of Puu Oo because the vent is weakest on that side. Previously, the south flank was its weakest, which is why most lava flowed in that direction for the past 30 years.

He said it’s hard to say how long activity on the northeast flank will continue.

“We just watch and learn,” Kauahikaua said.

“It’s likely to stay on one side for a while,” he added.

Once it advances away from the cracks, the flow will likely move more to the north-northeast than its current path, which is taking it along Kilauea’s east rift zone, Kauahikaua said.

Beach, Waawaa and Chain of Craters roads have been identified as potential alternate routes if Highway 130 is covered.

About 7 miles of Chain of Craters Road was covered in lava by past flows. Oliveira said reopening the road would be financed by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the state Department of Transportation if that decision is made.

Such an effort would cost millions of dollars, he said, but he declined to provide a more specific number without talking with DOT first.

Another meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. today at Pahoa High &Intermediate School.

Email Colin M. Stewart at and Tom Callis at

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