National News

Hawaii Lava Eruption: ‘I Can See My House Burning,’ Says Resident

Posted May 7, 2018 11:18 p.m. EDT
Updated May 8, 2018 12:29 a.m. EDT

The texts and calls to John Tarson, a tour operator in Hawaii who has taken thousands of visitors to see lava flowing from the Kilauea volcano over the years, began soon after last week’s spectacular eruptions.

There were expressions of concern for the residents on the island’s eastern edge who were forced to flee their homes, and about his own safety. There were exclamations of fear and awe at the lava spreading across the land. And then, some version of the question: “Can we go watch?”

To those, Tarson, 37, had an easy response. He was as compelled as anyone by the sight of lava, which he captured on video Saturday night spurting 230 feet into the air. There was something inescapably primal about it, he liked to say, a thrilling reminder that civilization sits on the crust of a planet made of molten rock.

But for now, business was closed, he replied to the avalanche of queries: “At this point our efforts are all going to be to help the community that is suffering losses.”

The natural wonder that is the Kilauea volcano is the main attraction of Hawaii’s Big Island, with nearly all of its 2 million annual visitors making a stop in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But as the volcano and the surrounding area transformed into a natural disaster, leaving almost three dozen structures destroyed, residents, officials and tourists alike wrestled with its dual nature.

“On the one hand, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing you’re seeing in person,” said Ryan Finlay, an island resident and the administrator of the Hawaii Tracker Facebook group. “And then 10 minutes later, that lava is going into a person’s yard and burning their house down.” The Facebook group tracks lava flow and has been a home for videos taken by island residents in recent days.

Twelve fissures have emerged, sending lava into the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions, where about 1,800 people live. Last week, Hawaii County ordered the subdivisions evacuated. Thirty-five structures have been destroyed, according to the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency. No deaths or injuries have been reported.

The authorities began allowing residents of Leilani Estates to retrieve their belongings Sunday, while Lanipuna Gardens remained closed because of dangerous volcanic gases. Several nonresidents were turned away at a checkpoint, according to Richard D. Rapoza, a spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

“People want to go down and get close it,” Rapoza said. “It’s an interesting experience standing next to red hot lava, to some people.”

In several statements, the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency stressed that outsiders should steer clear: “This is not the time for sightseeing.” The agency added: “The residents of Leilani Estates are going through a very difficult time. We ask for your understanding.”

Although volcanic activity has subsided, hazardous fumes continued in the Leilani Estates subdivision, according to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory on Monday. The civil defense agency had also previously warned about the threat of high levels of deadly sulfur dioxide gas in the area.

The island has been hit by hundreds of earthquakes in recent days, including one Friday that had a magnitude of 6.9. More aftershocks from that earthquake were expected, officials said.

Some residents who were able to return have found their homes in flames.

Heath Dalton, who lives in Leilani Estates and was evacuated Friday, returned to his home Sunday morning. He drove a truck and trailer, planning to pick up boxes of his family’s possessions that he had packed earlier. Instead, he found his home engulfed.

He called two neighbors to tell them their houses were gone. “I look at mine and I can see my house burning,” said Dalton, who was unharmed, as was his wife, Denise, and their young children. “At that point I called my wife and said, ‘There’s no reason for you to come; there’s nothing to get.'”

Fountains of lava have reached heights of 330 feet, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said. One video posted by the observatory showed orange and black lava belching smoke and flames as it crawled down a residential street. Other images taken by helicopter showed molten rock inching across a subdivision, setting fire to the structures it touched.

Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, has been in constant eruption for 35 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Its lava flows have covered 48 square miles.

Tarson, who started a touring business, Epic Lava Tours, three years ago, on Saturday performed what he described as a “recon mission” to help a friend retrieve a dog that had been left behind in the scramble to evacuate.

Just as he was turning to leave, he said, the earth unzipped in front of him, as a new fissure, the eighth of 10, ripped open the ground.

"It’s like our lives,” he said. “Every day, it moves and changes.”