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Some Kapoho residents stay as lava moves in

The month-old eruption in lower Puna likely dashed any remaining hopes Kapoho residents had that their community would be spared as a lava flow crossed Highway 137 at “Four Corners” on Saturday and headed toward Kapoho Bay.

The crossing by the long flow fed by fissure No. 8 in Leilani Estates effectively isolated about 500 homes that were being evacuated during the previous three days. But not everyone chose to leave.

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Talmadge Magno, Hawaii County Civil Defense administer, said as many as a dozen residents decided to stay despite numerous warnings from county crews who went door-to-door.

“Some say they have nothing else so they are determined they are going to stay,” he said.

Magno said there is no phone service, electricity or municipal water available in the area because of the eruption. No rescue attempts are planned but he said county officials will keep a lookout for signs of distress when they fly over the area.

“We went through the subdivision just before lava closed it down to touch base with these people and let them know this is their last chance to come out,” he said. It’s possible that they can still walk out, and a checkpoint continues to be manned on Government Beach Road.

A portion of the flow entered a prehistoric crater and came into contact with Green Lake, sending a white plume of steam into the air. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, citing the Hawaii Fire Department, said lava had filled the lake inside the crater by 3 p.m. Saturday and apparently evaporated all the water.

Shannon “Smiley” Burrows, who owns the property, said she was surprised the flow took that path.

“I had just the view of the water ravine and the direction I assumed (the lava) would go, and it just took an acute turn into the lower pasture and made its way in that direction,” she said. The crater is known as “Green Mountain” and the lake also is known as Ka Wai a Pele.

Burrows said the crater, covered in a lush forest, is the first place light hits in the morning and some see it as a place of renewal or new beginnings.

“The beauty is incomparable,” she said. “All that beauty is potentially changing.”

The eruption, which began May 3 in Leilani, has destroyed 87 homes and covered 4,213 acres, making it larger than a 1955 eruption that also occurred on Kilauea’s Lower East Rift Zone. That event was followed by a 1960 eruption that buried the village of Kapoho, and the current flow is retracing part of that eruption’s path.

The flow was 300 yards wide near its front.

A southern lobe was following a path of steepest descent, as identified by HVO, that goes through the north side of Kapoho Beach Lots and ends at Kapoho Bay.

By 2 p.m. Saturday, it had advanced 135 yards east of the highway, said Jim Kauahikaua, HVO geophysicist.

The bay is a popular snorkeling and swimming spot.

Voluntary evacuations began early morning Wednesday when the flow was advancing at a high rate along Highway 132.

Eruption activity on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone remained concentrated at fissure 8 in Leilani Estates. The fountaining fissure created the river of molten rock that follows a northeast path from Leilani through Puna Geothermal Venture’s property and then east toward the sea and Four Corners, where Highways 132 and 137 meet.

It’s the longest-lasting fissure since the eruption started. Only one other fissure — No. 16 — near Lanipuna Gardens, now essentially covered by lava, was weakly active Saturday.

Janet Babb, HVO spokeswoman and geologist, said Saturday morning that fissure 8 was only feeding the flow moving through Kapoho. Another flow front heading toward Waa Waa was no longer advancing.

Magno said residents in that area should be aware that it could become reactivated or a new flow could head in that direction.

Eileen O’Hara, a county councilwoman representing lower Puna, said residents along Beach Road were continuing to evacuate Saturday, with trailers hauling cows and horses from the rural community.

The lower Puna eruption is the latest of a string of volcanic disasters to hit the region in recent history.

The Pu‘u ‘O‘o/Kupaianaha eruption on the middle East Rift Zone started in 1983 and lasted until the recent eruption began. Lava from that event destroyed 215 structures and buried beloved beach parks.

That eruption threatened Pahoa in 2014 and 2015, and destroyed one home there before stalling twice shortly before Highway 130.

The current flow is the first time lava has returned to Kapoho since the 1960 eruption that destroyed Kapoho village.

A flow field from the 1955 lower East Rift Zone eruption borders Vacationland to the south. The ’55 eruption lasted for 88 days and moved up and down the rift zone, cutting off road access to several communities.

Geologists can’t say how long this eruption will last, and there remains a debate as to whether it should be classified as a new event or a continuation of the rift zone eruption that began in 1983.

Kyle Anderson, an HVO geophysicist, said that in recent history eruptions in the lower part of the rift zone tend to have less duration than middle rift zone events, such as the one at Pu‘u ‘O‘o. That vent is now inactive.

“It appears the system is more capable of sustaining ongoing eruptions in Pu‘u ‘O‘o than the lower East Rift,” he said.

Burrows said she knew some people who had chosen to stay near Kapoho, thinking Green Mountain would block the flow on the south side.

“It is heartbreaking,” she said, referring to the loss of Green Lake, “and, at the same time, I feel for the neighbors who have chosen to stay there with that steam coming from the lake.”

Babb said ash emissions at Kilauea’s summit within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have calmed down. The park remains closed.

Kauahikaua said the vent there remains clogged, resulting in less frequent but more powerful explosive eruptions at the summit.

An evacuation route through Chain of Craters Road, which goes through the park, was expected to be complete Saturday, except for some additional preparations, but won’t be opened unless Highway 130 is no longer safe. That route would be available for communities on the west side of the eruption, such as Kalapana.

Near Kapoho, roadblocks are in place on Government Beach Road and only residents are being allowed access.

Shelters remain open at the Pahoa Community Center and Keaau Armory.

Amy Hegy, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said there were 353 people at both shelters, with room for more. More people are showing up following the Kapoho evacuations.

“It’s a very fluid type of community here,” she said.

“They will find places to go and stay for a while and come back.”

One person reportedly committed suicide near the Pahoa shelter.

Police Capt. Samuel Jelsma, Puna District commander, said an unidentified deceased male was found hanging from a tree in the bushes surrounding the center Thursday.

Jelsma said the body might have been there one or two days. The man hasn’t been identified.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said that seven people were cited for loitering in a disaster zone Friday evening for trying to get up close to lava. The agency’s Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement is assisting the county with manning checkpoints in the disaster area.

One person, Joesph Tomaselli, had a placard used by residents to access closed areas confiscated because it was not being used for its intended purpose, according to DLNR. The agency said Tomaselli, of unknown age or residency, was in a car with Steve Vige, 64, of Castaic, Calif., on a back road leading to Lava Tree State Park.

In the same area, two men from Lahaina were cited for loitering as well as a man from Germany and a man from New York. A seventh man from Hong Kong was cited in the Kapoho Beach Lots and had his camera confiscated as evidence.

Earlier in the week, a California couple was cited for entering a closed area as was a California man for operating a drone within the temporary flight restriction area.

A community forum on insurance claims for residents who lost their homes to the eruption will be held from 3:30-6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Hawaiian Shores Community Association building.

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky contributed to this story.

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