• Otter Views: The Road was Burning

    This week’s accounts of molten lava creeping toward Pahoa town on Hawaii’s Big Island reminded me of events I witnessed years earlier along the same shoreline.

    The Kilauea volcano now threatening Pahoa has been erupting pretty steadily for more than 30 years. In year 12, lava first reached the ocean near Kalapana, a centuries-old Hawaiian fishing and farming community on Hawaii’s southeast coast.

    For the first time in living memory, one of Kilauea’s periodic and usually harmless eruptions seemed likely to destroy an actual town. In addition to being a tragedy and an anomaly, this was also a news story. I was working for a Maui daily at the time, and the paper sent me to Kalapana to see what I could learn.

    The first thing I learned is that lava can set paved roads on fire. This spectacle so amazed me that I spent some time photographing a burning highway, which led to another discovery. As it burns, pavement releases thick, dark, toxic, throat-searing smoke that can cause sensational headaches. Within an hour, I had one that lasted four days.

    Other surprises followed. Having previously seen eruptions only at their source and from the air, I was shocked by how slowly lava moves once it reaches flat ground. I had an image of molten magma splashing downhill in fiery rivers and blazing torrents, but the reality was more prosaic. The lava crept. It crawled. It accreted. Its internal temperature was 2,000 degrees, but it moved like strawberry jam.

    How slow was it? You could set a chair in the path of the oncoming lava, sit down and read The Hilo Tribune. When your shins got too hot, you could simply scoot the chair back. The lava moved so slowly you could kneel before it, lower your ear, and listen to one of nature’s oddest sounds. This was the metallic clink, tinkle and chime of micro-thin flakes of cooling lava “exfoliating” from the main blob as it puddled forward. It sounded like the world’s tiniest xylophone.

    The lava sang this enchanting siren song, but it also kept rolling. That was another surprise. How could this torpid, acrid-smelling mineral sludge keep moving and spreading? And how could this creeping tide possibly harm the town? Why not just dig ditches and build walls to divert it?

    To test this notion, I made daily visits to a shoulder-high, solid-looking rock wall in the lava’s path. On the first day, the wall held easily. On day two, the lava had pooled up twice as high, but the wall still held. On day three, the wall finally burst from the pressure, freeing a “toe” of lava to blaze and crackle through dry grass toward a gracious old wooden house.

    Many of Kalapana’s houses dated back a century and more. Some had bay windows and fancy scrollwork that had come around the Horn. And even the humblest tin-roofed shacks stood amid groves of coconut palms that had shaded that coast for generations. If you can imagine the stately Victorians and landmark cypresses of Pacific Grove torching off one by one, that was what the lava did to Kalapana.

    Houses burned. Trees burned. Phone poles burned. Fences, sheds, culverts, street lamps, street signs, even the streets burned. Weirdly, this all happened in slow motion, over a period of weeks. But the process was as inexorable as the trillion tons of lava pushing down the mountain from above. Dig a ditch? Build a wall? Forget it.

    Whatever the lava didn’t burn, it buried. Unique and beautiful places famous for a thousand years disappeared beneath the leaden slag. The freshwater springs at Queen’s Bath. The black sand surfing beach at Kalapana. Cherished fishing holes and reefs. Coconut groves planted centuries before by Hawaii’s kings. All paved over.

    As the lava neared and then entered the town, I interviewed some residents. Most were surprisingly accepting of the situation. “Madame Pele gives the land, and she takes it back,” shrugged one old-timer, referring to the temperamental Hawaiian volcano goddess. Another, newer resident said the risk was worth it. “When you live here, you know you’re living on the edge. That’s why we like it.”

    The lava’s arrival in Kalapana prompted diverse responses from two congregations. The town’s Catholics worshipped in a 125-year-old wooden church famed for its interior murals. To save the historic building, volunteer crews worked night and day to jack the church off its foundation and ease it onto a huge tractor-trailer which drove away minutes ahead of the flames. The painted church still hosts services.

    Kalapana’s Protestants had a more generic place of worship and a different outlook. “That’s just a building,” one explained, pointing to the endangered structure. “The people are the church. We’ll find another building.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 7, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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