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Checkpoint closures signal end of Kilauea disaster may be near

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    Hawaii Army National Guard personnel and others packed up the gear from a checkpoint along Highway 137 near MacKenzie State Recreation Area as access reopened Friday evening.

In another sign that the threat from Kilauea Volcano may be over, Hawaii County officials removed two lava-­related checkpoints on Highway 137 in Puna on Friday night, while portions of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park are scheduled to reopen Sept. 22.

“I’m glad,” said Glen Bousquet of Nanawale. “It’s about time. The mood in the air feels like the large disaster is over.”

Officials at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park plan to reopen some portions of the park, following emergency repairs, on Sept. 22, which is National Public Lands Day, when admission will be free.

“For the first time in many years, there is no molten lava to see in the park,” park officials said in an announcement Friday. “The recent eruption saw the disappearance of the summit lava lake and lava flows from Pu‘u ‘O‘o have ceased.”

County officials Friday night took down the two Highway 137 checkpoints — at Papaya Farms Road near Waa Waa and at Opihikao Road on the Kala­pana side of the flow.

Talmadge Magno, administrator for the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, previously told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he expects the removal of the checkpoints will lead to an influx of sightseers — despite a 50-yard perimeter around the lava field and a ban on entering the lava field.

County officials planned to erect guardrails to keep people from driving onto the cooled flow across the road, along with signage to warn visitors not to climb on the flow.

Last month the state Department of Land and Natural Resources announced that 94 people had been cited for loitering in the eruption zone. They faced penalties of up to a year in jail and fines of up to $5,000.

Law enforcement officials are prepared to continue to cite violators, said Kelly Wooten, spokeswoman for Hawaii County Civil Defense.

“There is a 50-yard perimeter, and the entire flow field is still off-limits,” Wooten said. “Right now there’s really no lava to see, but people aren’t allowed to walk around the flow field.”

Wooten encouraged residents to report people who trespass on private residential and agricultural property or violate the 50-yard perimeter around the lava field.

While county officials removed the two checkpoints at Highway 137, two others will be maintained with entry restricted to residents with placards — on Highway 130 at Leilani Avenue and on Highway 132 at the “Y” intersection in Nanawale.

Like some other Leilani Estates residents, Peter Wilson wants county officials to maintain the checkpoint at Leilani Avenue to keep looters and sightseers out of his neighborhood.

“We’re concerned because people have been looted in Leilani,” Wilson said. “We still have no power, so we cannot use our security systems. There already are people wandering in, walking around the lava. Without the checkpoint there would be busloads of people coming in here.”

For people who live and own property near Waa Waa and at Opihikao Road, Wilson said he worries about “the unintended consequences” of taking down the Highway 137 checkpoints.

“I doubt that they’ll make any effort to patrol those areas since they don’t have the funds because all of this overtime (to respond to the eruption) has bankrupted the county,” Wilson said. “I think there will be looters who will move in and people — squatters — who will occupy people’s property. There are people who will take advantage of the fact that these areas are unsupervised.”

The Highway 137 checkpoints were taken down because Kilauea Volcano has shown signs of slowing activity, beginning in early August.

Since it began erupting May 3, lava from Kilauea opened 24 fissures, covered more than 6,000 acres of land in Lower Puna, destroyed nearly 720 homes in the Leilani Estates and Kapoho areas, and buried or isolated more than 1,600 acres of farms.

The eruption forced the closure of the national park, Hawaii island’s largest tourist attraction.

Since May, 62 so-called “collapse events” have occurred at the summit of Kilauea as the exodus of lava caused the summit’s walls to collapse, triggering seismic events equal to 5.8-magnitude earthquakes.

The collapse events also triggered “scores of rockfalls and fractured park overlooks, trails, waterlines, parking lots and roads,” park officials said Friday.

Some 32 park buildings have been inspected, nonpotable water has been restored to nine buildings and 20 miles of trail have been assessed.

Engineers from the Federal Highway Administration are scheduled to begin assessments on park roads starting Sept. 10.

Even after the park reopens, vehicles weighing more than 15,000 pounds will be prohibited because of what the park called “extensive earthquake damage.”

Nahuku — or Thurston Lava Tube — will remain closed.

But starting Sept. 22, park officials plan to reopen:

>> The Kilauea Visitor Center and its Hawai‘i Pacific Parks Association store.

>> Crater Rim Trail between Volcano House and Kilauea Military Camp.

>> Sulphur Banks Trail.

>> Crater Rim Drive to Steam Vents.

>> Kilauea Iki Overlook and parking lot.

>> Devastation Trail and Pu‘u Pua‘i.

>> Crater Rim Drive to Keanakako‘i Crater for pedestrians and bicyclists only.

>> Mauna Loa Road to Kipukapuaulu to pedestrians and bicyclists past Kipukapuaulu.

>> Sections of Escape Road from Highway 11.

>> Chain of Craters Road.

>> Volcano Art Center Gallery and Kilauea Military Camp with possible limited services at Volcano House.

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