Lava inches toward Hawaii community: Kilauea’s Tutu Pele spirit strikes again?

Preparations for possible evacuation are picking up speed as a massive Kilauea lava flow on the Big Island of Hawaii approaches homes. Natives say the volcano’s guardian spirit is 'cleaning house.'

U.S. Geological Survey/AP
This Aug. 12 photo shows a fluid lava stream within the main tube of the June 27 lava flow from the Kilauea volcano Pahoa, Hawaii.

Capable of covering nearly a quarter mile a day, a massive Kilauea lava flow is burning thick forest and threatening human dwellings near Ka’ohe Homestead on Hawaii’s Big Island – reminding locals and tourists alike of the tempestuous nature of Kilauea’s female guardian spirit, Tutu Pele.

The current lava flow, which began June 27, is burning through mountainside forests as it descends toward the Pacific. Within a week, homes could be threatened and up to 8,000 people could be cut off if the flow covers Route 130, the major artery into the region.

Some residents have begged Hawaiian authorities to try to divert the flow, while others told officials at a public hearing on Friday that that there was no use trying to stop Tute Pele, “our ancestor,” as resident Ihilani Niles said, according to West Hawaii Today. “If she feels she needs to clean her house, then let her clean her house.”

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) said that if the lava continues to advance through ground cracks, the flow could reach the boundary of the Kaohe Homesteads in a week’s time.

Kilauea, the most active of Hawaii’s five shield volcanoes (the name means “much spreading”), is one of the world’s most interesting tourist destinations as it allows visitors to see the inexorable flow of hot rock up close.

It’s also a sacred place for the descendants of Polynesian sailors who first settled the islands about 1,500 years ago, a period through which Kilauea regularly erupted, sometimes violently. The volcano became mythologized as Tutu Pele, a beautiful, wise and tempestuous goddess who regularly reclaims her land from humans.

The hot fount has been a tourist hotspot since 1840, largely because of its uniqueness: Even as it’s nearly always active, it’s also closely monitored and, given its slow flow speed, harmless – unless one’s home is suddenly downhill from flow that can thicken to 50 feet.

Hawaiian authorities on Friday issued an emergency declaration, mainly to allow Big Island Civil Defense to keep roads clear should evacuation be necessary out of the area. More than 8,000 people would be affected if the lava overtakes portions of Highway 130, the sole major route that connects to the lower Puna area.

The Kilauea volcano has erupted from its Pu’u O’o vent for the last 31 years. The latest lava flow began on June 27.

Fickle lava flows have claimed dwellings throughout Hawaiian history. The most recent engulfment came in 2012 when the last standing home in the Royal Garden neighborhood, which was largely destroyed in 1986, burned up. "Time to move on," resident Jack Thompson sighed before being airlifted.

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory warned Friday that the main threats to residents for the time being are high sulfur concentrations and so-called “Pele’s Hair,” volcanic glass threads that are formed when lava ejects from a vent and is spun in the wind.

Meanwhile, some residents have already begun to leave, packing up their homesteads and moving livestock out of the way.

“We live in one place where lava is still existent, and whether you believe it’s Tutu Pele or just the science, the fact it is lava, you cannot change the direction,” Piilani Kaawaloa of Pahoa told officials at Friday’s public hearing. “It’s like me telling you, ‘Move the moon because it’s too bright.’”

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