Large lava fissure ‘absolutely deafening’

  • U.S. Geological Survey photo This photo, taken at about 2 p.m. Sunday, shows a few of fissure No. 17 looking makai (southward) from Highway 132 in lower Puna. The fissure is the first outside Leilani Estates to destroy a structure, the 37th building destroyed by the current lava activity from Kilauea volcano.
  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Hawaii Police Department officers man a checkpoint at Highway 132 and Pohoiki Road, about three miles mauka of of Halekamahina Loop Road, where fissure No. 17 erupted lava Sunday morning.

A man who lives near the large volcanic fissure that opened up Sunday and spewed lava near Halekamahina Loop Road in lower Puna called the event “absolutely deafening.”

“There’s a fairly constant whooshing,” said Mark Clawson, who added he’s “staying put” despite a structure being consumed by lava from the fissure.

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“I guess the best way to describe it is as if I was standing next to a (Boeing) 747 that is full-throttle,” he said Sunday. “That kind of comes and goes, and is punctuated by blasts — absolutely earth-shaking and deafening blasts — hurling lava bombs of up to a hundred pounds or more hundreds of feet in the area. It’s the most spectacular thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno on Sunday said the fissure is “about a mile northeast” of the Puna Geothermal Venture power plant. He added the residents of the two homes on Halekamahina Loop Road were ordered to evacuate at about 6 a.m. Sunday.

“Fortunately, as far as we could tell, the two homes that were on that road, (the residents) weren’t home. … Those homes turned out to be uprift or up from the fissure, so they’re OK,” Magno said.

The count for destroyed structures stood at 37 late Sunday for the ongoing lava activity from Kilauea volcano. The remainder of destroyed buildings, 26 of them homes, are in nearby Leilani Estates subdivision.

Officials are also worried about the air quality in the area, especially the levels of sulfur dioxide, a potentially deadly gas emitted by the fissures.

“As long as the tradewinds hold, then we’re fine,” Clawson said. “… I think the only problem would be if the winds shifted and came out of the southeast, which is extremely rare.

“The police were up here and ordered an evacuation, but they can’t make us leave. The house that’s directly below me is less than 100 yards from all this explosiveness. … I’ve been down there most of the day watching the lava bombs … landing in close proximity.”

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory originally called the fissure No. 18, then changed it to No. 17, since a ground crack originally dubbed fissure No. 17 on Saturday didn’t produce lava.

“Our best estimate is that the fissure is about 1,400 feet long (with) very sluggish lava being erupted from it and sporadic fountains shooting up, hurling some blobs of lava several hundred feet into the air,” said Janet Babb, an HVO volcanologist. “But most impressive was every once and awhile, (it) would give this big blast, and you could hear the noise of that over the sound of the rotors of the helicopter, which I’ve never experienced in the 20-plus years that I’ve been here.”

Late Sunday, HVO reported that another fissure, No. 18, opened up near Halekamahina Loop Road between fissure 16 and 17. Active fumes and lava spatter were occurring, and earthquake activity and additional outbreaks in the area are likely.

Earlier Sunday, Magno said with 60,000 gallons of pentane, a highly flammable compound, removed from the PGV premises and taken to W.H. Shipman Business Park in Keaau, PGV is “just working to cool the well fields.”

Although the geothermal power plant is offline, Civil Defense referred to two “active” wells.

“There’s no production going on. They are production wells that are still pressured,” Magno said.

Hawaii Electric Light Co. said Sunday two poles damaged by a nearby lava flow fell on Kahukai Street in Leilani Estates, underscoring the need for continued caution around electric equipment even in areas where eruption activity has subsided.

The fallen poles caused an outage affecting an additional 30 customers in the area, which is under mandatory evacuation orders from Civil Defense. HELCO personnel de-energized the fallen lines but no repair work is planned until the area is safe to enter.

A total of about 400 customers in Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions are without power. No additional outages have been caused by new fissures that opened over the weekend.

HELCO said even with the shutdown of PGV, the local power utility is still capable of sufficient generation to meet the island’s electrical needs.

Civil Defense directed owners and operators of vacation rentals near the lava to cease operations.

“The water system down there is taxed already,” Magno said. “The water line that feeds that area that runs along … Pohoiki Road has already been taken out once. And they reconnected it, so it’s supplying that area. But we understand there’s a large number of vacation rentals in that area. So we’re asking the support of those folks to cancel reservations or somehow accommodate these people.”

Most of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remained closed due to the possibility of an explosion in Halema‘uma‘u crater that could propel rocks up to a mile away and ash 12 miles away if the level of the crater’s lava lake drops to the level of the water table below.

“The lava lake has now dropped completely out of view, so we are unable to get an exact measure of where the lava might be,” Babb said. “… There is still that concern if the lava lake drains below the water table, that groundwater can seep into the hot rocks left behind.

“Now, if the conduit remains open, it’s not too much of a problem, because the steam that is generated from the interaction of hot rock and water can just passively rise up through the conduit. But we’ve been seeing the rockfalls in that conduit. They’ve been ongoing. And should rocks fall into that conduit and form a plug, effectively, then the steam that’s building can become pressurized. And if it’s pressurized enough to blast through that plug, that’s the concern. … That’s not a certainty, but that’s a possibility.”

Residents of the Kapoho area, including the “Four Corners” area at the intersection of Highways 132 and 137, are advised to be prepared to evacuate. Some Kapoho residents have already done so on voluntarily.

“They should be making preparations,” Magno said. “Although not all of them are under the threat of inundation, they are facing the threat of isolation if the roadways are taken out. So they’ve got to consider that.”

Highway 132 remained closed at the Pohoiki Road intersection, and only local traffic was allowed on Highway 132 (Pahoa-Kapoho Road) and Highway 137 (Beach Road).

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Highway 130 remained closed at the intersection of Highway 132. Only local traffic was allowed into Leilani Estates. Highway 130 remains closed between Malama Street and Kama‘ili Road.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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