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Thousands flock to see the lava hit the sea

Updated: 
July 28, 2016 - 8:57am

KALAPANA — “How far is it?”

“Can we get close?”

“Can we drive up to it?”

Keaka Hunter has heard it all — multiple times each day. He’s a security guard for Jan-Guard Hawaii, the security company hired to patrol the Kalapana entrance to the latest lava flow from Kilauea’s Pu‘u ‘O‘o vent.

Hunter has advised, monitored and assisted thousands of lava visitors since early this month, when the flow first started oozing down the western boundary of the abandoned Royal Gardens subdivision.

It’s since continued moving. Early Tuesday morning, lava had crossed the Kalapana emergency route and entered the ocean for the first time in nearly three years. That latest movement spawned the emergence of several ocean lava tours and sent social media users into a picture- and video-posting flurry.

It’s also attracted more visitors. On Monday night, hours before lava arrived at the coastline, an estimated 2,000 people came to see the flow from the Kalapana entrance, Hunter said. Previous days drew about 1,000 people on average.

“When we see (another guard) pushing cars further and further down, and then we know people are really piling up,” Hunter said Tuesday evening, as the makeshift parking lot in front of the subdivision slowly filled with cars. “Facebook has been going off … the lava’s in the ocean now and that’s going to get a lot more people coming.”

Getting up-close isn’t exactly easy — it requires a 4.25 mile hike from the parking lot over a dusty gravel road and humid, weather. Signs posted at the entrance warn to bring plenty of water and “be ready a long hard hike.”

The hike begins three miles through the county viewing area and then continues another mile-and-a-quarter through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The full journey from Kalapana can take two hours each way, 16-year-old Derek Scott, a lava visitor from Canada, said Tuesday.

“It was nice with the wind, but it was still really hot, so it was a long walk for us,” a sweaty Scott said shortly after finishing. “But it was really cool seeing the lava flow. I’ve never actually seen it that close by. The heat that radiates off the body when you’re that close to it is amazing.”

The northern California-based Lazon family on Tuesday opted to ride bikes to the flow instead, which takes around a half hour. The family had attempted to hike the distance the night before, but ultimately turned back three-fourths of the way in, dad Lee Lazon said.

“It was going to be around 2 a.m. before we got home, and after a full day of snorkeling we were pretty wiped,” he said as the family prepared to take off on newly rented bikes. “But after a failed attempt last night we will be prepared tonight.”

An estimated 60 percent of lava viewers are off-island visitors, Jan-Guard Hawaii security supervisor Tracy Pacheco said.

But plenty of residents have made the journey, too.

Jim Carpenter of Pahoa had ventured out to the lava four times since early this month and twice Tuesday alone. And Chris Gonsalvez, his son Nakoa, 12, and friend Kedd Carver, of Kapoho, came armed around 7 p.m. Tuesday with tea leaves to make an offering at the lava.

“When you get out there, your mouth just drops open,” Chris said.

Hannah Tran, 10 and her dad, Hien Tran, drove all the way from Waimea to catch glimpse of the glow. The trip was bittersweet — the duo said they were excited particularly because they are moving to the mainland next week.

“We heard it was going into the ocean, so we wanted to see it,” Hien Tran said, about a mile into the hike with Hannah. “And for us, (it was) like our last chance to come out and see the lava.”

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