County opens lava-viewing route

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A car passes county workers while they fill potholes on the Traffic Hazard Mitigation Route implemented by the county off Saddle Road on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

  • USGS photo of lava fountaining from a fissure on the northeastern side of Mauna Loa volcano.

Lava watchers can get a closer and safer view of the Mauna Loa eruption through an alternate route intended to reduce parking on Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno on Thursday announced the opening of a Traffic Hazard Mitigation Route, a one-way 4.5-mile bypass route that allows people to safely park and view the lava flow from Mauna Loa without crowding the shoulders of the highway.

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The route utilizes the Old Saddle Road across from the Gilbert Kahele State Recreation Area to a point just west of Pu‘u Huluhulu near the Maunakea Access Road.

“We’re offering a better solution,” Magno said. “It’s actually closer viewing than the highway … and it’s better because it’s actually higher up than the highway.”

Because of the higher elevation of the mitigation route, Magno said it is less likely to be overtaken by the lava flow than the highway, although he and Ken Hon, scientist in charge for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, reiterated yet again that the flow and speed of the lava cannot be easily predicted.

Only passenger vehicles — no commercial vehicles — are allowed to use the mitigation route, and only for 90 minutes at a time. Magno said police officers will be on site to ensure compliance with the time limit.

Drivers also will be allowed to park only on the right side of the road, and because the entire route sits within Pohakuloa Training Area land, users are advised to not leave the roadway or its shoulders.

“It can be very disorienting at night, and it’s easy to get lost,” according to a statement from PTA Thursday afternoon. “Use of flashlights and headlamps is highly encouraged.”

The statement also reminded drivers that the PTA front entrance is not the entrance to the mitigation route and asked people to not park near the PTA gate or on the highway at all.

Drivers also are advised to proceed with caution. Magno said the mitigation route — which has been closed since the opening of the final section of the highway in 2013 — is in rough condition and should be traversed slowly.

Road crews were still patching potholes in the road Thursday afternoon.

Hawaii County Parks and Recreation Director Maurice Messina estimated that the route could carry up to about 890 vehicles at once. However, Magno said he estimated that the volume of nightly lava viewers could be “roughly in the thousands or even tens of thousands.”

Magno said he does not believe the county will change its enforcement of parking rules along the highway now that the alternate route is open.

Parking along the highway is illegal except in cases of emergency, and police are enforcing parking violations between the 16- and 31-mile markers with $1,000 citations and vehicle towing.

Police spokeswoman Denise Laitinen said Thursday afternoon that 24 citations have been issued so far, although no vehicles have been towed.

“We are humbled to have come together with our state and federal partners to find a potential solution to the ongoing safety concerns along Saddle Road,” said Mayor Mitch Roth in a statement Thursday. “Our teams have worked tirelessly to keep the community safe through this eruption, and through the creation of the Traffic Hazard Mitigation Route, we believe that there will be significantly less risk to our community.”

On Thursday morning, Hon said the lava had slowed to about 40 yards per hour, with the leading edge of the flow about 3.4 miles south of the highway by 1 p.m. At that pace, he said the earliest the flow could be expected to reach the highway is in one week. But he also said that because the cooling lava is spreading out and advancing unpredictably — breaking out into lobes that can block its own progress — it could easily take longer.

Hon said Wednesday evening that the lava is approaching a point where it could just as easily progress to the east or the west. If it goes west, he said it might miss the highway altogether.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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