The last way out

  • Kapoho Vacationland evacuee Kymie Rutledge talks with the Hawaii Tribune-Herald on Friday at the Keaau Armory shelter. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

  • HAWAII COUNTY map

  • Crews work to prepare Chain of Craters Road to be used as an emergency route, should Highway 130 get cut off by lava. (Hawaii County photo

  • Courtesy of HAWAII DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

  • A plume from an encroaching lava flow is seen mauka of Four Corners Friday in lower Puna. (ANDREW RICHARD HARA/Special to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

HILO — Hawaii County Civil Defense officials continued to warn Kapoho residents to leave Friday as a river of molten rock advanced a half-mile from “Four Corners.”

The flow cut the last curve on Highway 132 by the afternoon as it neared ever closer to the intersection with Highway 137, the only exit route remaining for residents in the area. Lava already crossed Highway 137 to the west between Isaac Hale and MacKenzie beach parks.

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Kymie Rutledge of Kapoho Vacationland, who was staying with her husband at the consolidated evacuation shelter at Keaau Armory after being told to evacuate, said she could smell smoke from the lava flow as it approached.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this, never thought I would,” she said. “And so, in a sense of positiveness, wow, it is amazing. But then on the down (side) it’s devastating, but it’s nice the support that you’re getting.”

Rutledge covered her face with her hands and began to cry when she described having to leave without being able to find her cat.

“It’s like having a daughter,” she said. “I mean, everybody says it’s just a cat, but you’re taking care of this animal, and they depend on you. Now we just feel like we’ve deserted her.”

Talmadge Magno, county Civil Defense administrator, said county crews went door-to-door Friday on Highway 132 to get the last residents there to leave as lava from the lower Puna eruption began to move in. He said 87 homes have been destroyed since the eruption started May 3.

Magno said residents of Kapoho Vacationland and its environs were notified again that morning that they needed to leave. The first warning came early Wednesday morning when the flow was traveling downhill up to 600 yards an hour.

By Friday, it had slowed to between 70 yards and 110 yards an hour as it reached flatter ground.

Magno said it remained difficult to peg the timing of lava crossing Four Corners, where Highways 132 and 137 meet, but added Friday was likely the last chance for people to leave.

“You don’t want to take that chance,” he said.

About 500 homes are located in the area.

For Shannon “Smiley” Burrows, her escape from the lava Friday wasn’t her first.

Burrows, a Leilani Estates resident, is the caretaker of Green Mountain, located near Four Corners, and moved her family, including her partner and four children, to the property after the eruption started.

By Friday afternoon, they found themselves back at Leilani after the lava moved in and destroyed their cabin. She said their home on Kula Street is near the upper entrance to the subdivision and appears safe for now. They are looking for another place to stay.

But it was surreal to be back where it all started.

“The fissure going off in lower Leilani sounded like a jet plane,” she said.

Burrows said some of her neighbors never left.

As of Friday afternoon, fissure No. 8 in Leilani was the only vent still spewing lava.

A mandatory evacuation order for lower Leilani east of Pomaikai Street went into effect Friday, but there were no reports of problems or arrests.

According to the county, about 2,500 people have been displaced since the eruption started. Shelters are open in Pahoa and Keaau.

Jim Kauahikaua, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geophysicist, said the fissure, which is feeding the flow threatening Kapoho, had built up a cone 150 feet tall.

Kauahikaua said the eruption rate doesn’t appear to be diminishing.

The eruption is located on Kilauea’s East Rift Zone, and geologists are still debating whether it should be considered a new event or a continuation of the rift zone eruption that began at Pu‘u ‘O‘o in 1983.

Pu‘u ‘O‘o became silent shortly before volcanic vents opened in Leilani almost a month ago. Geologists say magma that was building up under that cone moved downrift before finding its way to the surface in the subdivision.

Kauahikaua said there was another explosive eruption at the summit Friday afternoon. Earlier that day, Kyle Anderson, HVO geophysicist, said the vent inside Halema‘uma‘u Crater was plugged with debris.

By Thursday, lava flows had destroyed a substation and warehouse at Puna Geothermal Venture, according to a news release from Ormat Technologies, the power plant’s majority owner. Two geothermal wells also have been covered by lava.

In 2017, the plant produced $11 million in net income for the company.

The company said it is required to pay about $22 million in lease payments until 2027, and it can’t yet assess when the geothermal plant could become operational again.

The state Department of Transportation said it expects emergency evacuation routes to be open on Chain of Craters Road and around Highway 130 today.

The latter route goes through private property owned by Sanfords Service Center Inc. and connects with Kamaili Road and Opihikao Drive.

Those routes would only be accessible for residents on the west, or Kalapana, side of the eruption.

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Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.