Fast-moving lava flows on Hawaii’s Big Island from the Kilauea volcano have blocked one major evacuation route and are headed toward the crossroads of another, prompting a new round of evacuations for rural neighborhoods in the area.
Authorities going door to door in the early-morning hours Wednesday called for emergency evacuations in the Kapoho, Beach Lots and Vacationland areas, about 35 miles from Hilo, the island’s biggest city.
The lava crossed Highway 132 on Tuesday afternoon and was moving diagonally toward an intersection known as Four Corners, where Highways 132 and 137 cross near the coast. As of 4 p.m. local time, the lava was within 1/2 a mile of 137, the USGS said.
Both highways are the primary evacuation routes for the area, raising concerns that authorities might have to bulldoze an emergency route through the jungle connecting several existing small roads. They’ve also made plans for helicopter evacuations using military aircraft.
"The Hawaii Police Department has ordered a mandatory evacuation for Noni Farms Road and Hale Kamahina Rd off of Hwy 132, around the 5 mile marker due to lava inundation," police said early Wednesday morning. "This notice affects all residents and businesses in Hwy 132 at the 5 mile marker and immediate surrounding area. Evacuees may seek shelter at the Pahoa Community Center or the Keaau Community Shelter."
It wasn't immediately clear how many people were ordered to leave in the newest round of evacuations, but about 2,000 had already been barred from their homes. Kilauea has been erupting since 1983 with only occasional pauses of quiet activity. The latest eruption began May 3 in a part of Leilani Estates, a subdivision near the town of Pahoa.
Area residents reported power outages and spotty cellphone coverage as the flows destroy power lines. Authorities said the flow was moving about 200 yards an hour, slower than walking pace.
Those same kinds of implacable flows are blamed for the destruction of at least 12 homes Sunday and Monday and left neighborhoods covered with up to 20 feet of new rock. Authorities said the lava flows themselves are a danger but also warn ash, poison gases and hair-like threads of cooled lava pose respiratory risks.
Fountains of lava are reaching about 200 feet high, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.
"Pele’s Hair is falling in Pahoa. Can cause skin, nose, eye and lung irritation. Stay inside or use ash masks for protection," the county warned.
The flows raise the stakes for a community that already has struggled with nearly a month of mandatory evacuations prompted by lava from the Kilauea volcano further inland. Tempers are flaring, residents are frustrated, and businesses are struggling.
The flow near the Leilani Estates neighborhood about 35 miles from Hilo had already destroyed at least 82 structures, including 41 homes.
So far the lava has not caused any problems at a geothermal electricity plant that residents feared could release toxic gases. Authorities say the lava has flowed over portions of the plant and blocked its access road.
Leilani Estates residents Brady Metcalf and his fiancée, Ana Luquin Jiminez, have been evacuated since May 3 and expect the lava to take their house any day. It was still standing Tuesday, but they had little hope it would stay that way.
“When the lava comes, it comes at a huge volume and obliterates everything," Metcalf said. "That used to be one of the nicer neighborhoods with paved streets, nice homes and friendly neighbors. Now the bottom half of it is gone, and it looks like an ocean of lava for as far as you can see.”