PAHOA, Hawaii — Lava from the Kilauea volcano was burning through the rain forest Tuesday and is about 2 miles from pouring into the ocean, raising the likelihood the Big Island is about to get a little bigger from a flow that could persist for weeks — and could cause serious health problems.
Health officials at a community meeting Monday night cautioned residents that most commonly available face mask filters — the paper kind used for sanding and painting —would protect only against ash and won't remove the sulfur dioxide.
"Severe conditions may exist such as choking and inability to breathe," the county's Civil Defense Authority warned. "This is a serious situation that affects the entire exposed population."
The best solution is to simply leave the area, health officials say. Other options include staying indoors with the windows shut and the air conditioning running or doing the same inside a car, with the “recirculate air” button on.
The lava has already forced the evacuation of nearly 2,000 people and destroyed at least 36 structures, including 26 homes in a rural neighborhood about 35 miles from Hilo, the island’s largest city.
Plumes of poisonous gases accompanying the flows are killing off trees and grasses left untouched by the lava, and health officials warn the gases pose a significant health risk to anyone in the area. Journalists are banned from the areas where the lava is most active, although government scientists are monitoring the flows.
“I’ve been around a very long time, and I know this is different,” said Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, who was born in 1939, 20 years before Hawaii became a state.
Anxious area residents are facing the possibility the lava flows won't end anytime soon. The latest episode of activity began May 3, and the flow has been oozing slowly downhill ever since, primarily through the Leilani Estates neighborhood.
Monday, the flows reached the Lanipuna Gardens area near Pohoiki Road, and authorities strongly urged anyone in the area to leave.
Also on Monday, authorities announced they had removed a large amount of flammable liquid stored at a geothermal electric plant in the lava's potential flow path. The plant pumps the liquid underground to generate steam to make electricity, but the wells are being filled with water and capped so they don't pose any additional danger during the flow.
The moving lava prompted authorities to close new roads in the area and restrict access to residents and farmers. National Guard troops are staffing checkpoints, and police are conducting roving patrols to reduce the risk of looting. One man has already been charged with looting and faces unusually stiff felony charges under an emergency order.
Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, has been erupting on and off for hundreds of thousands of years and has been has been erupting continuously since 1983 with only occasional pauses of quiet activity.
The lava occasionally flows into the ocean, expanding the boundaries of the Big Island and providing breathtaking views for tourists. Kilauea itself might also belch steam, gas and rocks into the air at any time, scientists said.