An increasing number of Hawaii residents and tourists have been so determined to see flowing lava from the ground on Hawaii island that they have been risking fines and potentially jail by sneaking into restricted zones.
Through Wednesday, 74 people had received citations from the Hawaii Police Department and state Department of Land and Natural Resources, according to DLNR.
“The urge to get up close and personal to lava during the current Kilauea eruption is not only unsafe, but people who get caught now potentially face steep fines and jail time,” the agency said in a Saturday announcement that included names of 12 people cited in the prior week and noted that some face a fine up to $5,000 and/or a year in jail if convicted.
On Tuesday, DLNR named six more people cited that day or the day before.
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Yet some violators include residents who live inside security checkpoints and contend they went to places that are neither dangerous nor vantage points for seeing lava.
Oscar Jaitt and his wife, Gabriele, were two such people cited for loitering in a closed area known as Paakikii, or Coconut Grove, about 4 miles from their house and tropical fruit tree nursery on Kamaili Road south of where lava broke out May 3 in the rural Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa.
“It’s just not right,” Oscar Jaitt said. “Honestly, I’m considering filing a harassment lawsuit against (DLNR). I don’t think they realize they’re harassing us, but they really are. It’s really over the top.”
Jaitt said he and his wife, both 62, were sitting in beach chairs relaxing near the shoreline under coconut trees miles from flowing lava when they were cited for being in the area closed because of the eruption.
Paakikii, he said, is the only nearby shoreline recreation spot, except for Kehena Beach, where clothing is optional, after lava cut off access to Pohoiki beach, otherwise known as Isaac Hale Beach Park, and then filled in Kapoho Bay.
Jaitt said he understands and agrees with the need to keep outsiders away from the area because of concerns over looting evacuated homes, noxious sulfur dioxide gas drifting from the lava fountain in Leilani and the possibility of new lava breakouts. He also contends that he knows the dangers and the area better than law enforcement officers patrolling Paakikii.
Protecting the public without unnecessarily infringing personal freedom is a difficult balancing act during a disaster and especially during a volcanic eruption with unpredictable lava that has been flowing for seven weeks and shows no signs of stopping after destroying around 600 homes.
For instance, Hawaii County announced May 11, before lava flowed to the ocean south of Kapoho, that all beach parks in lower Puna had been closed. Then on Memorial Day, May 28, the county opened Pohoiki beach for area residents who could obtain placards for day use. Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said access was important to help area residents maintain some normality.
The next day, however, lava cut off Highway 132 and the beach park was closed again. Lava later rolled over Kapoho, and this park is no longer reachable by road.
Two state recreation areas — Lava Tree State Monument near Leilani Estates and MacKenzie State Recreation Area on the coast 2 miles from Pohoiki — were closed May 4 according to a DLNR announcement that cited earthquake activity in Puna.
Lava Tree remains near a fast-moving river of lava that has enticed people to sneak past guarded checkpoints to see the flow.
The six people cited Monday and Tuesday were all in or near Lava Tree.
Gov. David Ige on June 5 issued an amended emergency proclamation that increased penalties to as much as $5,000 and a year in jail for entering closed areas.
“I find there is a need to strengthen the enforcement tools available to county and state emergency management officials in controlling public access to dangerous areas,” the proclamation said.
Before the heightened penalties, close to 40 people had been cited for what DLNR calls loitering in a restricted area.
DLNR said two Honolulu residents caught at Lava Tree Tuesday were wearing respirators and relayed that they were enticed by social media postings showing others illegally entering the area to photograph or record lava.
The agency said three people cited earlier at Lava Tree pleaded no contest to charges last week. Of those three, two were fined $500 each and the other was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service.
For less than $500, people can book a helicopter or boat tour to view lava. Gov. Ige and Hawaii County leaders also are looking to establish a safe, temporary and affordable viewing platform to give the public the chance to see hot lava coming from Leilani, though a timetable is uncertain.
A public viewing area would certainly deter people from risking arrest, fines and potentially jail to see lava from closed areas. “People are trying to find their own viewing locations and circumvent the roadblocks, which we don’t think is very helpful,” Ige said Wednesday.
Such a viewing area, however, wouldn’t address demand to access places like MacKenzie park and the neighboring Paakikii coconut grove where Jaitt was cited.
In these places, dangers are less pronounced in light of last month’s decision to open Pohoiki beach to area residents before access was blocked by what is now hardened lava, and recent lava activity that hasn’t recently deviated much from a channelized flow to the ocean at Kapoho.
Jaitt objects to this part of the shoreline being off limits to area residents. “We’re not like kids trying to get shots of the lava,” he said. “We were just sitting there in our beach chairs. It’s a really beautiful area.”
Dan Dennison, a DLNR spokesman, said threats to these recreational areas remain from lava, sulfur dioxide and a cracked road that is the only way out except for an emergency outlet along Chain of Craters Road through Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.