Facing Lava

Imagine you own a home, a pretty little place in the rural, forested area of the Big Island of Hawaii.

The same area hit hard last month by Hurricane Iselle!

The same area hit hard last month by Hurricane Iselle!

Now imagine that day after day and hour after hour, a stream of molten rock creeps ever so slowly, but ever so relentlessly, towards your home.

There’s nothing you can do but watch as liquid stone bubbles and smokes along the cracks in the forest floor, inching nearer and nearer.

(Video from Honolulu Star Advertiser by USGS)

You live in Kaohe Homesteads, a small neighborhood that stands in font of a lava stream that emerged from the Pu’u O’o vent of the volcano Kilauea.

Pu'u O'o vent on Kilauea. A very active volcanic site.

Pu’u O’o vent on Kilauea. (Credit: UH Hilo)

This is the origin point of the flow, Kilauea, about three days ago. (Credit: avaxnews.net)

This is the origin point of the flow, about three days ago. (Credit: avaxnews.net)










The vent is ten miles uphill from you but the flow has traveled 9.3 miles and it’s moving at 460 yards each day. It started on June 27th. The progress is unrelenting as the lava seeks the sea.

The U.S. Geological Survey says Kilauea is the youngest volcano on Hawaii Island but youth is relative – Kilauea’s first eruption happened between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago. In any event, this is no time for trivia. The fact is that Kilauea is very active and has been erupting since 1983. The name “Kilauea” means “spewing” or “spreading widely.” This time it may spread to your front door.

Pu'u O'o getting its freak on during a previous eruption.

Pu’u O’o getting its freak on during a previous eruption.

Kaohe Homesteads is in the Puna District of Hawaii Island. This  is a lush, agricultural district where papaya is a major crop.  It is on the edge of the Wao Kele o Puna Forest Reserve, Hawaii’s largest remaining lowland wet forest.

It seems that you can’t catch a break. Just a few weeks ago Tropical Storm Iselle made landfall here, toppling trees onto homes and disrupting utilities.

Lava on the surface burning through trees along the route.

Lava on the surface burning through trees along the route.

The bubbling magma is about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (~1,100 degrees Celsius). It burns and melts whatever it touches.

It may soon cut off the road that provides access to your neighborhood. The State and County officials hold meetings every few days but the news is uniformly tough to hear – there’s simply nothing anyone can do to halt the flow.

So far there have been no evacuations. This is not an explosive caldera eruption of the kind that makes the nightly news. No spurts of flaming red goop blasting into the area. This is a slow creep, predictable as to speed if not exactly as to route.

Community plan to provide refuge for animals.

Community plan to provide refuge for animals.

In the meantime, your friends and neighbors have been told to get their livestock rounded up and out of the area, just in case.

Some ask if the flow might be diverted but that’s a sensitive subject here. Kilauea is home to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. A significant number of your neighbors feel that it’s culturally insensitive to interfere with Pele’s will.

So you go home from the meeting smelling the sulfurous by products of the eruption, seeing the smoke plumes rise up not too far away.

If you’re one of the prepared ones, you’ve been packed up for weeks; otherwise, you’re packing right now.

Lava emerges from a new vent in the volcano Kilauea. (Photo credit: Associated Press)

Lava emerges from a new vent in the volcano Kilauea. (Photo credit: Associated Press)

Either way, within the next few days you may have to leave home and wait for a miracle, a chance of fate or the sight of your home bursting into a ball of flames as the melted rock touches it.

It’s possible that disaster will be averted. It all depends on subtle changes in the topography. The odds are looking rather long right now.

Another side of life in Hawaii for some folks. Send a kind thought their way.

8 replies

  1. I’d send you over some of our floods but I doubt that would help-it would only produce a lot of steam. At least there’s plenty of warning. I assume that peeps who are unaffected are offering shelter for the peeps and pups who are.


    • It seems that the peeps and pups are well coordinated. This is an interesting area. A little bit Old West, a touch of the 60s and a lot of individualism but the folks pull together in adversity.


    • If you drive around the Big Island you’ll see the signs of many lava flows, some ancient and some more recent. Many are signed with the date of the flow. You are left with the sense that nature (or Madam Pele or whatever) moves at its own pace and on a scale unfathomable to us. I always feel more wonderment than fear. having said that, would I buy a house in a known lava flow zone? Nope.


  2. Here on the Gulf Coast, we have hurricane insurance and wind insurance to protect us during Hurricane Season. Do they anything like lava insurance to cover something like this in HI?


    • There are different zones for lava risk depending on proximity, positioning, historical flows, etc. In the higher risk zones mortgages can be a little hard to come by but generally most folks can get insurance on homes up to $350,000 through the Hawaii Property Insurance Association and above that amount there is insurance available through Lloyds of London but it can be costly.


  3. What would possess one to buy land in such an area (if not misled by an estate agent, that is)? I would hate to be in that position, worried about my livestock and pets.
    Here (or rather there as I am in Spain at the moment) around volcano Turrialba the sulphur emissions have been such as to force farmers to take their cattle off the fields and to be prepared for immediate evacuation of themselves and families…


    • I guess every place has some kind of natural disaster risk whether that be earthquake, tornado, hurricane, blizzard, flood, lightning, landslide, sandstorm, fire or volcano. Actually, lots of people who live over there don’t really think much about lava flows whereas they may be terrified of the thought of a tornado, in part because lava flows are generally not a surprise event. Our volcanoes tend to ooze out a lava creek and do not explode like they can in other parts of the world. When the lava flows, we get thousands of people who visit the public viewing areas to come see!


All comments are welcome, so speak! Speak! Good dog.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.