Public viewing area for eruption discussed, but not guaranteed

A close-up view of the lower Puna eruption is currently reserved for the bold and those willing to risk a citation.

As for whether a legal public viewing area could be established, Hawaii County officials say that has been discussed, but they aren’t making any promises.

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“We’re still in emergency mode,” said Janet Snyder, spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office.

“I don’t envision it at this point. It’s still soon.”

Diane Ley, county Research and Development director, said there has been talk about how or where to open an area to the public if conditions allowed, but nothing has been settled. She referred to it as an “ongoing conversation.”

“It’s just such a dynamic situation,” Ley said. “We got our hands full with people trespassing.”

She said the county would consult with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory before selecting a site suitable for the public, if that were to happen.

A public viewing area existed for the eruption that inundated Kalapana nearly three decades ago. It was more recently used as a staging area for vendors and people to hike out to the lava flow field from Pu‘u ‘O‘o.

That viewing area wasn’t close to the eruption site. The current eruption poses increased hazards from gas emissions and the proximity of the fissures themselves.

But the dangers aren’t stopping people from trying to get up close to one of nature’s most powerful and awe-inspiring forces.

County and state officers have cited 47 people for being in closed areas, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

That includes another six cited between Monday and Tuesday for loitering or refusing to evacuate. Violators can face fines up to $5,000 and a year in jail.

According to DLNR, three people pleaded no contest to their charges last week after being found loitering at Lava Tree State Park. Two were fined $500 and a third will serve 50 hours of community service.

Snyder told reporters Tuesday morning that the official count of homes destroyed by the eruption on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone is 577. The eruption started May 3.

That figure is reached by reconciling tax maps with aerial surveys, and the official number is what is given to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

She acknowledged that work of counting homes destroyed is ongoing, and the number likely will go higher.

On June 11, Mayor Harry Kim estimated lava has claimed at least 600 and perhaps as many as 700 homes.

Wes Thelen, a USGS geophysicist, said fissure 8 in Leilani Estates was producing fountains of lava between 150 and 180 feet tall.

Minor eruptive activity was occurring at fissures 16, 18 and 6, he said.

The lava flow from fissure 8 that’s entering the ocean was flowing as fast as 20 mph, Thelen said.

According to HVO, small overflows of the lava channel were observed on the north side near Pohoiki Road but had stalled by Tuesday afternoon. Another small, sluggish overflow on Luana Street was advancing northwest.

A minor explosive event occurred at the summit at 5:05 a.m. That coincided with a 5.3-magnitude quake, generated by the energy from the blast, which produced an ash cloud above the volcano.

A 4.4-magnitude earthquake occurred Tuesday afternoon on Kilauea’s south flank.

Thelen said there have been about 30 explosive events at the summit since its caldera began to subside because of the withdrawal of magma from the summit.

He said the amount of land subsidence or loss of volume at the summit is estimated to be about 267 million cubic meters, which reflects a “huge amount of magma that is leaving the system.” It’s not known, however, if that magma has or will make it to the eruption site.

“It could be it’s going to the East Rift Zone and being stored in a certain area,” Thelen said.

The subsidence has dramatically altered the landscape in the caldera, with the Halema‘uma‘u crater increasing in size as its walls slump inward.

Thelen said the ash plumes created by the explosive events are getting smaller, presumably because the magma column is getting farther from the surface.

The eruption has covered 9.5 square miles and added 370 acres of new land along the coast.

While it’s hard to know for sure, Leslie Gordon, a USGS public affairs specialist, said in an email that a geologist estimated the eruption has pumped out 250 million cubic meters of lava since it started May 3. It might be coincidental that the figure is similar to the amount of land subsidence at the summit, she noted.

Gordon said there remains a lot of room for error in that estimate and that it is “something our scientists are studying and trying to refine.”

Residents of Pahoa and other parts of East Hawaii might experience more volcanic gas through Thursday.

John Bravender, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said changing wind patterns could bring more sulfur dioxide to those areas. He said stronger trade winds will return Friday.

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Reporter John Burnett contributed to this report.

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

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