More than 30 residents of a lava-locked kipuka in lower Puna drove across the lava channel from last year’s Kilauea eruption Monday to return to their homes.
Using a road graded over the lava channel by Puna Geothermal Venture, authorized residents can now drive to and from a subdivision south of Highway 132 that was cut off by lava during the eruption.
The road is an offshoot of one that was cut across the lava channel in December in order to restore access to PGV. While only PGV employees and suppliers have been able to use the road, now residents who signed an extensive waiver are permitted access to the roadway, although only at times designated by PGV.
Mike Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaii affairs for PGV, said the road will be open for ingress from 8-11 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. Leaving the kipuka via the road will be permissible at any time, and Kaleikini said the hours of access might be changed in the coming weeks based on how traffic plays out this week.
Access to the road is controlled by a checkpoint located just west of the intersection between Highway 132 and Pohoiki Road, that will remain staffed 24/7, Kaleikini said. Blank waivers can be obtained at the checkpoint.
Only a smattering of vehicles traversed the lava Monday morning, although Kaleikini said 28 waivers covering 74 residents plus 11 minors have been signed. By 4 p.m. Monday, Kaleikini said 32 people in 22 vehicles had been checked in.
“And that’s pretty good because we have 27 vehicles registered on our lists,” Kaleikini said. “So only five vehicles haven’t showed up.”
According to Hawaii County officials, 56 properties with structures remain in the kipuka.
“It feels good, it feels like coming back home,” said David Zuhars, one of the first residents to drive across the approximately 3/4-mile-long road.
Zuhars said he returned to his home in the kipuka before, but only through a taxing hike over the lava. Being able to access his home by vehicle will allow him to return full-time, after staying at friends’ homes and in a disaster shelter for more than three months.
As Zuhars’ vehicle lumbered across the rough gravel, steam rose from the lava rock, the remains of the previous night’s rain evaporating in the light of the morning sun. Kaleikini said some days, the steam is so thick “you can’t see past a foot in front of you.”
Kaleikini said PGV can temporarily close the road at its discretion to ensure residents’ safety, such as during periods of extremely poor visibility. Furthermore, during times of high traffic, Kaleikini said residents will have to be patient, as the road is too narrow to accommodate opposing traffic lanes.
At the other end of the lava, residents Harald Fischer and Debbie Kalaluhi waited to greet incoming vehicles. The pair returned to their respective homes in the kipuka earlier by other means, but also signed waivers authorizing them to use the road.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Kalaluhi said. “It’s heart-racing to see people driving back here.”
Fischer said he has remained within the kipuka for months, assisting other residents with transporting property across the lava and securing their properties. His dirt bike, the only vehicle available to him in the kipuka, accumulated more than 500 miles of travel within the kipuka alone since the eruption.
“We had to airlift all our possessions and our dogs back in here,” Fischer said.
“It’s good to be free to come and go now,” he added.
Kalaluhi said she hopes the restoration of access will lead to the county clearing Highway 132 of lava, which has been a widely requested project for months.
Until then, however, Kalaluhi said she is glad to be able to come and go as she pleases.
“Going to the store, going to the bank — we couldn’t do that before, we took that for granted,” Kalaluhi said.
Email Michael Brestovansky at email@example.com.