Family uneasy with ‘front-row’ seat for lava flow

When Matthew Barrett moved into his home in Kaohe Homesteads in December, he had a plan.


When Matthew Barrett moved into his home in Kaohe Homesteads in December, he had a plan.

After years of traveling, working in Nebraska, Alaska, Illinois, New York and more, he and his family — including a wife and three children, ages 2, 5 and 6 — were going to put down roots, literally and figuratively.

“We wanted to retire early, grow our own food. Live a sustainable life,” he said.

The 7-acre piece of property on the northwest corner of the lower Puna neighborhood had plenty of room for cows, ducks, chickens, vegetable gardens and more. And working as a psychiatrist for the state in Pahoa, Barrett would be able to bring in added income to finish the work on their home, to which they have been busily adding more room.

But then, the lava came.

“When we first moved in, the guy who helped us get the place, Damian, he told me to keep a close eye on the volcano. And I used to check online once a month. Then, while we were in Spain, the lava flow started coming. It just advanced down that crack, and was coming straight for us.”

The flow ended up turning northward slightly, and passed right along the edge of his property. It continues to move toward Pahoa, and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists have estimated it could cross Highway 130 within weeks.

“How do you think it makes me feel?” he said with a nervous laugh when asked his reaction to having the June 27 lava flow right off his back yard.

“To be honest, I just got over the idea of losing it (his home) a week or two ago,” he said. “It’s gonna shut down Pahoa as we know it. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Having the flow so close to his home has been worrisome, he said, but he’s also been able to appreciate it for the unique experience it provides.

“It’s been very disruptive, but on the plus side, it’s exciting too. We hear the methane blasts all day, like a gunshot. (The kids), they love it,” he said. “It’s the best science class in the world. Right now, we have a front-row seat for the story of a lifetime.”

Despite his sunny take on the positives of the experience, however, Barrett doesn’t hold out much hope that the flow will stop any time soon.

“Personally, my outlook is pretty much doomsday. They say it’s going to keep flowing. Scientists say the lava tube is really strong and stable. It’s a lot like Kalapana. The highway will get covered, and they’re going to have to stop bringing in food, gas. It (the town) will have to be abandoned,” he said.

In the last few days, Barrett has completed moving his family out of the house. They’ve set up a temporary home in Kapoho.

“We have a roof, we have a water tank. We have a plan,” he said.

However, should life in lower Puna become untenable due to the lava cutting off the highway, he says the family may have to move up the coast, over to Kona, or perhaps to another island.


“I’m adaptable, I adjust quickly,” he said.

Email Colin M. Stewart at

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