The Thrill Of Seeing Hot Lava Up Close

There’s nothing quite like witnessing, close up, a Big Island volcanic eruption and the subsequent flow of either smooth pahoehoe or craggy a‘a lava at about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

It thrills and dazzles — you remember it forever. It also can burn or kill you with just one misstep.

So the police and civil defense authorities working the Pahoa lava flow decided to restrict all public access. You could not cut across a field and get a precious photo of one of the slow-moving fingers of pahoehoe or pillow lava.

County police arrested two people for doing the latter, plus dipping golf clubs and an egg beater in a slow flow. Stephen Koch, 59, of Nanawale, and Ruth Crawford, 65, of Ainaloa, had been spotted about five feet from one flow taking pictures. They also had shown reporters their lava-covered golf clubs and the egg beater.

The past grand master of handling lava flows, former Hawaii County Civil Defense chief and mayor Harry Kim, used to be of that “forbid and arrest” mode, too, when he was handling the Kalapana flow in 1990, when more than 100 houses were destroyed.

Used to be, he says, until I questioned that in a roadside discussion with him. I said the danger was minimal to any sensible person and a lava flow was something that almost everyone wants to see with their own eyes, not as a television picture. Kim says he went home and thought about that and decided I was right. They would warn people, but they would not arrest anyone for seeking out a photo or a souvenir.

“But I’m not going to second guess anyone now,” Kim recently told me.

It is a conundrum for authorities, who are worried about lawsuits by injured people who say, “You didn’t sufficiently warn me or stop me.”

Volcanoes National Park has what Kim likes to call an “acceptable risk” policy. It’s almost impossible for its rangers to keep people out of every danger area. I took a Mainland friend for a hike over a cooling flow that had cut the Chain of Craters Road. A ranger was there, but a couple of dozen were way out on the lava. We retreated when our shoes got hot and we could see the redhot stuff flowing a few inches down in cracks in the crust. I asked the ranger about all those sightseers and he said, “Yeah, I was trying to keep them back, but there were too many of them and I finally gave up.”

The Pahoa flow being pahoehoe, nobody is likely to get hurt by it unless they do something totally stupid. Pahoehoe develops an insulated skin within a few second of being on the surface. I wouldn’t walk on it yet, but you won’t get burned by radiant heat unless you put a hand near it for some time. Sticking a golf club in it doesn’t pose any danger if you don’t drip the stuff on yourself. Even then, you’d have a nasty burn but you’ll survive.

A couple of geologists have slipped and gotten a limb into the lava briefly at the park over the years. Both survived with serious burns.

A‘a lava poses more risk because it tends to pile up and clinkers tumble off the leading edge. You don’t want to get close enough to a‘a to insert a golf club or an egg beater.

But back to my main reason for writing this: I think it’s being overly strict and overly protective to forbid anyone from approaching a flow like that at Pahoa. You can walk much faster than the lava can flow on flat ground. The main danger would be going too far afield and getting cut off by a divergent finger. You can’t walk through even a small finger of lava, no matter how fast you go. It will burn your feet off.

There are risks in life for all species. I’ve done things other places that would never be allowed in risk-adverse America. It’s a shame, to me, that our courts have made governments protect us from every chancy thing we might do.

The Pahoa situation should have been handled with a viewing area and signs warning that you enter a lava-flow area at some risk of injury or death.

Tony Chang and his HCDA just can’t seem to let Kakaako Makai alone. Now it’s a Japanese proposal for a wedding chapel and shops between Kewalo Basin and Ala Moana Beach Park. I’m with Roy Awami of the Friends of Kewalo, who says, “We need open space — a place to breathe.”

And am I just lacking public and memorial spirit, or does it seem unseemly to you, too, to spend those millions studying a Daniel K. Inouye Center on East-West Road at the University of Hawaii? I’d rather have a first-class School of Public Health and the much-needed repairs and upgrading of existing facilities at the UH by an equivalent amount of money.

What say you?