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Lava flow eats structure, sets tires alight, stalks houses

    The first structures were set ablaze Tuesday as the June 27 lava flow reached the outskirts of Pahoa. Coffee and anthurium farms were damaged.
    The lava flow burns through thick vegetation below the pasture downslope of the P?hoa cemetery on Monday.
    Lava ignited a tire fire Tuesday.

–PAHOA, Hawaii >> After traveling a circuitous 13.5-mile route over four months from Kilauea Volcano, the threat from a river of lava suddenly became real Tuesday when it destroyed its first structure on Hawaii island, took on a utility pole wrapped in untested, anti-lava technology and blackened the sky after setting tires on fire.

Dozens of unarmed soldiers and airmen from the Hawaii Air and Army National Guard were to arrive in Pahoa town Wednesday to help deal with an expected onslaught of traffic and tourists drawn to the slow, molten advance that seems to have no end in sight, Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oli-veira said.

The threat from the streaming lava — dubbed the June 27 flow for the date it started — kicked into higher gear over the weekend when it crossed Apaa Street in Pahoa and approached the post office.

But the destruction of its first building on Tuesday is “definitely going to change the dynamics,” Oli-veira said as smoke from an afternoon tire fire ignited by lava hung in the sky.

And more homes and businesses lie in the lava’s path.

Martin Cambra, a Hawaiian Beaches resident, said Tuesday’s destruction suddenly made months of threats real for him.

“It’s been a while since they said it first started flowing,” Cambra said. “I was kind of in shock myself. We all hoped it would slow down.”

Early Tuesday morning a two-story rental house on an agricultural lot appeared to be the first building that would be claimed.

But the flow suddenly turned at about 7:30 a.m. and instead ignited a 10-by-15-foot utility potting shed on an anthurium farm owned by a contractor, Oli-veira said.

The rental home remained at risk Tuesday night, as did the farmer’s warehouse and home.

Civil Defense officials prepared to issue evacuation orders to nearly a dozen homeowners and businesses also in harm’s way, although there was no decision on whether to make the evacuation mandatory.

Hawaiian Electric and Light Co. also suffered a setback Tuesday when the first of four power poles its crews wrapped in new technology on Apaa Street suddenly sank 10 feet and started smoking but remained standing — after it was surrounded by lava. Whether it would ultimately withstand the lava was uncertain.

HELCO crews had wrapped four poles in an initial layer of insulation that’s used to keep power plant boilers from overheating; a concrete base with holes normally used to let water flow through dry well culverts; and cinder held onto the pole by “horse wire,” HELCO spokes-woman Rhea Lee said.

But the lava that hit the first pole Tuesday apparently set its wooden base on fire, causing it to drop 10 feet, Lee said.

Crews then shot water onto the pole, which seemed to lower the temperature to 100 degrees from more than 200 degrees.

“Hopefully that stopped the burning, if that’s what was happening,” Lee said. “For now the steam or smoke has stopped. In terms of cooling down that pole earlier, that might need to be a step that we will take.”

HELCO officials are now considering whether to retrofit the remaining three poles — or change their approach for poles farther down the lava’s path.

“Every day we’re learning more,” Lee said.

The lava had advanced only 20 yards by 11:30 a.m. but suddenly gained new speed and traveled another 100 yards by 3 p.m.

Between the anthurium farm and Pahoa Village Road — about five football fields away — lie another six to 12 homes, businesses and a bed-and-breakfasts that are also at risk, Oli-veira said.

Police, firefighters and Civil Defense officials once again planned to go door to door Tuesday night to warn residents of the dangers.

“It’s unlikely we’ll need to issue a mandatory evacuation, but we’re prepared to do that,” Oli-veira said.

But the decision to leave will be up to each person, Oli-veira repeated.

Allowing people to remain would be “part of the overall grieving process” in losing a home, he said.

Oliveira also continued to debunk un-sourced media reports of looting, saying there was no evidence.

Tim Orr, a geologist with the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, walked along the path of the lava Tuesday and said the front of the flow was knee-high and about 15 yards across, sparking tiny methane explosions.

Kilauea Volcano has been erupting continuously since 1983. In the 1990s about 200 homes were destroyed by its lava flows.

The last evacuations from the volcano came in 2011. One home was destroyed and others were threatened before the lava changed course.

“Kilauea” means “spewing” or “much spreading” in Hawaiian, and for several weeks the lava has stopped and stalled, picked up speed and changed direction — a phenomenon that’s “likely to happen for the near future,” Orr said.

None of that was reassuring Tuesday to Rich Rice of Pahoa.

He was praying the lava would change direction and leave Pahoa town alone.

But Rice was steeling himself for more destruction to come.

“It still may, now,” he said.


Star-Advertiser reporter Megan Moseley contributed to this report.

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