PAHOA, Hawaii>> The leading edge of the lava flowing out of Kilauea Volcano came within 156 yards of crossing Pahoa’s main road Thursday — and less than half a mile from cutting off Highway 130, the main artery for the 8,200 residents of lower Puna.
Then, the front of the 13.5-mile-long river of lava then suddenly stalled. Again.
However, the possibility remains that it will restart and possibly overrun both Pahoa Valley Road and Highway 130.
That would leave the area “basically a situation of isolation,” remarked Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira.
Even before the lava reaches Highway 130, county and state officials are considering closing the highway out of concerns that tourists and rubber-neckers will create safety issues as they try to get a glimpse of the 2,100-degree flow.
At an informational briefing at Pahoa High School cafeteria Thursday evening, the predominant question was when Highway 130 will close.
“We’re preparing for closing the highway,” confirmed state Department of Transportation representative Sterling Chow, who said he had a meeting with Hawaii County Civil Defense earlier in the day. “It depends on how the lava effects motorists.”
Oliveira said after the meeting that the timing of the closure rides on multiple factors, including the safety and concerns of drivers. He said officials are also discussing access for people to see the flow and how that may exacerbate the anticipated heavy traffic.
He promised drivers will be made aware of the decision days in advance.
While the lava already has reached Pahoa near the Post Office, the flow remains off-limits to nonresidents, with barricades in place and guarded by Hawaii County police and 83 unarmed Hawaii Air and Army National Guardsmen.
Every day, Oliveira said, officials are considering the possibility that the lava will cross “a trigger point” that would lead them to close Highway 130.
“We’re weighing all of the potential problems of safety risks,” he said.
County and state road crews already have completed work on two emergency evacuation roads to help people get in and out of lower Puna: A one-lane coastal road that goes by various names including Old Government Road and Beach Road; and a two-lane road called Railroad Avenue, which is closest to Pahoa.
While Old Government Road is open, officials are waiting to decide when to open Railroad Avenue, which could happen “any time,” Oliveira said.
A third evacuation road out of lower Puna — Chain of Craters Road through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — remains under construction and is scheduled to be ready to open in December.
But even with emergency bypass roads, the general consensus is that lava will forever change life for the residents of Pahoa and lower Puna.
“Not a second time,” said Micky “Quick Mick” Medina, 56, of Hawaiian Beaches. “It’s terrible.”
He worries that lower Puna will suffer the same fate as Kalapana, where Medina lived before it was cut off by a 1990 lava flow.
Because of the unpredictable nature of the flow that began June 27, geologists and county officials are not making any predictions about where the lava will go next — or when.
But if it does cross Pahoa Valley Road and Highway 130, part-time Pahoa resident Kaeipo Ho’opai, 32, maintains “this will make the community stronger.”
Ho’opai also had to move out of Kalapana because of the 1990 flow and now lives part-time in the house on Pahoa’s main street — Pahoa Valley Road — that has been in his family for 90 years.
If lava isolates Pahoa, Ho’opai said, “people are going to have to grow their own food and be self-sustainable,” adding, “This could be a blessing in disguise: more solar, more carpooling.”
Meanwhile, Hawaii Electric Light Co. plans to move a second diesel generator into lower Puna within days to help keep power running in case lava overruns transmission lines, HELCO spokeswoman Rhea Lee said Thursday.
The first of four HELCO power poles on Apaa Street that were retrofitted with anti-lava wrapping dropped 10 feet when the pole’s wooden base apparently was burned and undermined by lava.
After destroying a 10-foot-by-15-foot farm shed Tuesday, a finger from the flow Thursday remained stalled just 100 feet from a two-story, rental house on an agricultural lot.
Also at risk are the farm owner’s warehouse and adjacent home, which were each 200 yards from the lava Thursday.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman (D, Puna) owns the Island Naturals food store in the heart of Pahoa, and said the current path of the lava should leave his business intact.
But if it does cross Highway 130, Ruderman said his business would be the only source of store-bought food for miles.
Ruderman has received assurances from his major distributors that they will continue to supply Island Naturals even if it means driving farther down Railroad Avenue.
However, Ruderman said, “Life is going to change. No doubt about it.”