As lava approaches Saddle Road, officials work to manage the droves seeking to view eruption

  • Destan Chang balances on lava rock while viewing the Mauna Loa eruption with his family from Saddle Road on Tuesday. (Kelsey Walling/ Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

Lava from Mauna Loa is not on track to approach populated areas anytime soon, but authorities now have to reckon with people flocking to see the eruption.

Because there is a spectacular view of the lava flows from the Daniel K. Inouye Highway — known locally as Saddle Road — Hawaii County is urging travelers to refrain from parking on the roadside to watch the fiery show.

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Throughout Monday and Tuesday, cars lined the highway as residents and visitors alike gathered to view the lava.

After seeing the glow Monday night, C.S. Okera stopped on the highway Tuesday while driving to work in Kailua-Kona from Ainaloa in Puna.

“I don’t even know what to think. After experiencing the lava flow in Puna a few years ago, this one feels different,” Okera said. “It’s beautiful and a little scary, since we don’t know where it will go.”

Howard, Charlene and Destan Chang, all residents of Orange County, Calif., decided to stop on the side of highway on the way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from Waikoloa Village and were excited to see the lava.

“We heard about the eruption (Monday) and couldn’t believe the timing, especially since we planned to go to the national park (Tuesday),” Howard Chang said.

“It’s been absolutely amazing, we feel we hit the jackpot,” Charlene Chang added.

But Mayor Mitch Roth announced Tuesday an emergency rule prohibiting parking on the highway and its shoulders between the 16-mile marker to the east and the 31-mile marker to the west.

“What we’re trying to do is not have people park on the highway, but park in designated parking areas such as Gilbert Kahele (Recreation Area),” Roth said during a Tuesday press conference. “The highway is a highway — people are driving 60 miles an hour. Not a safe place for people to park. We’re not saying not to go up there. We’re just asking, if you’re going to go, go to a designated parking area where it’s safe.”

Under the emergency rule, Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area will remain open 24/7, with security guards onsite between 6:15 p.m. and 6:15 a.m.

Hawaii Police Department Maj. John Briski, Area One operations commander in Hilo, said that officers will make checks between those mile markers for illegally parked vehicles as well as other traffic violations such as speeding and unsafe passing.

“We know that it’s going to be dangerous with more people up there,” Briski said. “Time will tell what happens with (the highway).”

Briski said that violators will be ticketed and towed, adding that “once a few vehicles are towed, then people will get the message.”

On the other side of the island, police Maj. Sherry Bird, Area Two operations commander in Kona, said Kona officers will likely divert traffic at the Waikii junction, where the old Saddle Road breaks off from the highway.

“As far as our side is concerned, we’re not doing anything differently right now,” Bird said Tuesday. “I haven’t heard anything from my districts about traffic congestion or people dangerously pulling on the sides or things like that.”

Other sites around the highway also are preparing for a flood of lava viewers.

Rodrigo Romo, station manager for the Maunakea Visitor Information Station, located 9,200 feet up Maunakea, said the VIS already has begun receiving an influx of visitors, with cars parked all along the Maunakea Access Road.

“We are doing traffic control up here and, unfortunately, when our parking lots get full, we do have to turn people around,” Romo said.

Romo said his traffic enforcement only has jurisdiction over the VIS, which has a 90-car parking capacity. But he added that it is unsafe to park along the steep and winding access road and warned that access to the Maunakea summit was closed Tuesday because of icy conditions.

“If you must park, then we’re asking that people find places to completely pull out of the roadway,” Romo said.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources stated Tuesday that Pu‘u Huluhulu, a hill and small parking lot immediately across the highway from the Maunakea Access Road, has not been restricted to the public, although “that could change pending eruption status and potential impacts/mitigation measures for the area.”

As the lava approaches the highway, it stands to potentially interfere with traffic in a much more direct way. As of Tuesday afternoon, the lava flow was about 4.5 miles away from the highway — the main route connecting the east and west sides of the island — and was traveling toward the road at a pace of less than 1 mph.

Ken Hon, scientist in charge for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said Tuesday that about 4 miles away from the highway, the lava flow will reach flatter terrain that will slow its progress and possibly divert its route. But if the lava remains on its current path, it could reach the highway in a matter of days.

In that event, the state Department of Transportation plans to close a wide section of the highway between mile markers 8.8 and 21 — the former located just beyond Kaumana in Hilo and the latter a few miles east of the Maunakea Access Road.

Barricades would be erected at both points, which would be manned by both DOT personnel and law enforcement.

A DOT spokesperson said there is no plan for the department to attempt to divert the lava flow from the highway.

Roth said if Saddle Road becomes unusable, traffic will have to be diverted to the Mamalahoa Highway around the Hamakua Coast. He said that the Nanue Bridge, located south of Ninole, currently is reduced to one lane only due to construction, but should be restored to two lanes in a few days.

So far, only one road has been directly impacted by the eruption. By Monday evening, the lava had crossed the Mauna Loa Access Road, cutting off the access route and power to the Mauna Loa Observatory.

The weather station measures carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but it is no longer recording data because of the loss of power.

Reporter John Burnett and photographer Kelsey Walling contributed. Email Michael Brestovasnky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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