PAHOA, HAWAII – U.S. National Guard troops, police and firefighters ushered the last group of evacuees from homes on the eastern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island early on Saturday, hours before creeping lava from the Kilauea volcano severed all road access to the area, officials said.
A stream of lava as wide across as three football fields flowed over a highway near a key junction on the outskirts of Kapoho, a seaside community of private homes and vacation rentals rebuilt after a destructive eruption of Kilauea in 1960.
The lava flow left Kapoho and the adjacent development of Vacationland — encompassing about 500 homes combined — cut off from the rest of the island by road, according to the Hawaii County Civil Defense agency.
Authorities since Wednesday had been urging residents of the area to pack up and leave before lava spewing from a volcanic fissure at the eastern foot of Kilauea reached the area.
The final phase of the evacuation was carried out on Friday night and early Saturday by fire and police department personnel, with help from the Hawaii National Guard and public works teams, county civil defense spokeswoman Janet Snyder said in an email.
An estimated 500 people live in the greater Kapoho area, but Snyder said it was not immediately clear how many residents, if any, chose to stay behind.
Another 2,000 people have already been evacuated from the Leilani Estates subdivision, an area further west where dozens of homes have been devoured or cut off by rivers of red-hot molten rock streaming over the landscape since May 3.
For those whose homes have so far been unscathed, the prolonged strain of uncertainty has grown increasingly difficult.
“We’re waiting for Pele to make the decision,” said Steve Kirkpatrick, a retired mailman and 14-year resident of Leilani Estates, referring to the volcano goddess of Hawaiian myth.
His home was still intact but in harm’s way.
“You go for three weeks and you think everything is fine, and then you can still lose your house,” Kirkpatrick said as he and his wife, Kathy, ventured back to their community to help friends move out.
“As the lava expands, so has the anxiety,” she said, the low, jet-like sound of lava spouting from the ground audible in the distance.
Lava was not the only challenge posed by the eruption.
Toxic sulfur dioxide gas emissions have created an additional hazard. So too have airborne volcanic glass fibers, called “Pele’s hair,” wispy strands produced by lava fountains and carried aloft by the wind.
The lava itself, extruded from about two dozen fissures that opened on the slope of Kilauea’s “eastern rift zone” earlier this month, has also knocked out telephone and power lines and forced the shutdown of a geothermal energy plant.
The latest upheaval of Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, comes on the heels of an earlier eruption cycle that began in 1983 and continued almost nonstop for 35 years, destroying more than 200 dwellings and other structures.
The current fissure activity has been accompanied for weeks by daily periodic explosions of gas and volcanic rock from Kilauea’s summit crater as well as earthquakes. But the summit has quieted down over the past few days, as tons of rubble shaken loose from the interior walls of the crater have fallen into the void and plugged up the bottom of the vent.
Scientists are unsure whether the blockage will eventually bring an end to further eruptions at the summit or lead to a buildup of pressure that could cause a much bigger explosion.