Vents go quiet in lower Puna, but hazardous fumes remain a danger

Posted at 5:31 AM, May 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-17 05:31:09-04

Another fissure reignited on Wednesday night in lower Puna, sending fountains of lava shooting into the air.

In addition to new eruptions almost daily, several older fissures have been re-activating in recent days, coming alive with lava once again.

Since Sunday, six new fissures have opened up. And on Tuesday night, a previously dormant fissure — no. 6 — became active again. By Wednesday morning, several older fissures were active and spattering lava.

Things quieted down briefly Wednesday afternoon only to start up again in the evening, with at least one fissure spewing lava, lighting up the night in Leilani Estates.

Meanwhile, another fissure — no. 17 — produced a lava flow that was slowly carving its way toward the ocean. Since it opened over the weekend, it traveled about two miles, but officials said it had not advanced since Tuesday night.

The developments underscore the scope of the disaster in the area, which has upended lives, destroyed homes and shows no signs of stopping.

Authorities are continuing to monitor for new outbreaks and say 20 have opened up since eruptions began on May 3.

The latest eruptions also come amid rising fears about the threat of an explosive eruption at Halemaumau Crater.

On Wednesday, rocks were hurled from the summit crater and a series of quakes shook the summit. A day earlier, thick plumes of ash poured from Halemaumau, extending up to 12,000 feet above sea level and dropping ash as far as 18 miles downwind.

The threat of an explosive eruption prompted officials to close most of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Friday. It's unclear when the park, one of the state's most popular tourist destinations, will reopen. 

The emissions at Halemaumau also sent ashfall across the Ka'u District.

"On our tables in our breezeway in our visitor center, you can't see it (ash), but if you run your hand across the table you can feel the grit so you know that's in the atmosphere, you're breathing that in," said Louis Daniele, manager for Kau Coffee Mill. 

The spectacle at the summit comes as residents across lower Puna continue to grapple with ongoing eruptions.

Lisa Rios snapped a photo of lava lighting up the night sky in Nanawale Estates, which is across the highway from evacuated Leilani Estates. 

"It sounds like a war zone," she said. "The sounds of the eruption were very eerie."

The scary scenes have prompted some to leave their homes voluntarily. 

About 250 people are staying at three American Red Cross emergency shelters. Hundreds more residents are staying with friends and family.

Mandatory evacuations, meanwhile, remain in place for the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions, home to about 2,000 people.

And authorities continue to urge thousands living elsewhere in Kilauea's east rift zone to be prepared to evacuate quickly.

Indeed, some residents have had minutes to flee from shooting lava or hazardous fumes. 

That's what happened over the weekend, when police went door-to-door on Halekamahina Loop Road, waking up area residents and telling them to evacuate after a 17th fissure opened up to the west — or Kalapana side — of Highway 132.

A presidential disaster declaration has been issued for the ongoing Kilauea eruptions, which have changed the landscape of a Big Island community, destroying dozens of homes, covering roads and gobbling up utility lines.

So far:

  • Some 37 structures have been destroyed, including 27 homes.
  • Lava has covered more than 117 acres of land.
  • At least nine roads are now impassable.
  • As many as 50 utility poles have been damaged by the lava, and hundreds have been without power since the eruptions started.

Tina Neal, USGS scientist-in-charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said there's no's telling how long the eruptions will continue.

She added that there are growing fears that "hotter, fresher" magma could be making its way downslope. Eruptions of fresher lava would increase the risk of fountains and more significant flows, she said.

It's been nearly two weeks since the first eruption started at Kilauea's east rift zone. In addition to lava, hazardous fumes continue to pour from fissures.


► LIST: Lava threat forces evacuations, closures

► Big Island businesses face layoffs, losses as visitor cancellations mount

► Vacation rental operations prohibited in lower Puna amid concerns for residents

► Here's how to help those affected by the Big Island eruptions

► Eruption from summit crater could trigger huge ash cloud, hurl boulders

Authorities have compared the eruptions of Kilauea along the south rift zone to volcanic activity in February 1955, in which at least 24 separate volcanic vents opened up and lava covered about 3,900 acres. 

Back then, coastal communities from Kalapana to Kapoho were evacuated and "sections of every public road to the coastline were buried by lava" before the eruption abruptly stopped in May 1955.

The last time lava threatened Puna was in 2014, when a flow closed roads for weeks in Pahoa, forced evacuations and claimed several structures, including one home. 

This story will be updated.

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