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Park rangers continue to urge caution as visitors flock to lava

Updated: 
August 15, 2016 - 3:55pm

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK — The Kalapana lava flow has drawn thousands of people, some of whom risk life and limb by playing with the molten heart of the Earth.

Numerous social media postings and videos show people running across the flow, throwing or poking objects into it or trying to manipulate it. On a recent Sunday, this reporter witnessed a man in slippers carrying a toddler while walking across the flow.

The 2,200 degree molten rock can be fatal, having claimed several lives during the current eruption at Kilauea Volcano, which has been ongoing since 1983, according to park officials.

Sometimes the danger comes from inattention, curiosity or what could be perceived as ignorance. In the incident with the man carrying his child, he was confused and had not seen that his path was about to take him directly into molten section until bystanders waved him to the left. The child, a girl of about 2 years old, was oblivious to the danger.

The man said that because there was no rope where the lava crossed the road on the far side, he thought the active part was on the Kona side. After much consideration, he decided to head back across, despite offers to provide transport to his home in Pahoa.

“Wish me luck,” he told bystanders while heading into the flow, trying to avoid the distinct silvery sheen of the newest lava.

Mitigating the danger

HVNP Chief Ranger John Broward has relocated his rangers around the area and the park service has done its best to warn the public, but there have been as many as eight EMS calls a day from the area, according to the statistics provided by the park service.

“Our rangers have also been very busy with what we call Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR). Our staff try to talk to visitors before they hike to the lava flow to make sure they have appropriate equipment. They also spend a great deal of time moving signs around and building rope lines, only to have to move them all over again the next day,” he said.

One route to the lava is the emergency road, the other alternative is finding a path across the lava field, which has no trails. The road was cut in the lava to allow emergency access to Pahoa amid the June 27 lava flow in 2014-15.

In all, the walk is about 9 miles round trip, if the hiker follows the road. Although broad and flat, it rises and falls over the older flows.

It’s level enough that people are able to ride bikes with coolers held on with bungie cords all the way to the flow.

Although there are no benches or other constructed sitting areas, visitors found plenty of sections of the lava to rest on.

The rangers recommend at least three quarts of water a person per day, although Broward said a gallon would be a better amount.

They also recommend taking a flashlight, as people often miscalculate how long the trip will take and find themselves walking back in the dark. Injuries have largely been related to the heat along the route, including heatstroke. So far rangers have issued one citation and that was for an illegal tour guide.

However, they have made a number of verbal warnings, including 40 on July 29, with a crowd of 1,028 people. That same day they performed two visitor assists. It was the second busiest day of the month, as July 30 had 1,220 people make their way past the station, while they made five verbal warnings and assisted two visitors.

An issue has been people throwing items into the flow, Broward said.

Under Native Hawaiian belief, lava is the body of the goddess Pele. Manipulating it or throwing materials into it is considered insulting.

Some of those items include the signs marking out the unsafe area, Broward said.

Concerns from up above

One ongoing concern they have is the use of drones, Broward said. It is illegal to use a drone while inside a national park and people have been arrested during previous events a couple of years ago.

A massive danger comes from how the lava forms as it enters the ocean. As described the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, the flow creates a “lava delta” of solid lava. But that rests upon sand and lava shards formed from the previous flow, which is unstable and prone to falling off.

When it does so, it exposes hot rocks, molten lava and surface lava to seawater.

The influx of seawater can then lead to a steam explosion. Historical explosions have thrown rocks three-feet in size upwards of 330 yards inland.

One of these collapses in 1993 led to a photographer being swept out to sea and the injury of multiple people too close to the area.

Hot water can wash ashore and burn people, while the acidic steam killed two people in 2000.

Additionally, the park has lost one man so thoroughly that Broward said it appears he was either consumed by lava or swept out to sea.

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