The hottest and fastest-moving lava of Kilauea volcano's latest eruption spread across new parts of the Big Island Wednesday, forcing officials to order evacuations in two coastal neighborhoods over fears that the rapidly advancing flows could cut off dwindling escape routes.
Overnight, the lava was moving fast enough to cover about six football fields an hour, according to U.S. Geological Survey scientist Wendy Stovall.
"Hawaii County Civil Defense decided to evacuate all of lower Puna to ensure that people would be able to get out," Stovall said.
Lava gushed across and then along a roadway that leads from the commercial center of Pahoa toward smaller towns and rural farmlands to the east.
About two dozen recent fissures in that area have created towering lava fountains and bone-rattling explosions throughout the eruption. The lava that is currently coming to the surface is the hottest and most fluid to date.
"This is the hottest lava that we've seen in this eruption, even just a matter of 50 degrees centigrade makes a big difference in how quickly lava flows can move and how they behave once the magma exits the vent," Stovall said.
In fact, the current lava eruptions in Puna are as hot as Hawaii's lava will ever get. "It can't get hotter than where we are," Stovall added. "We are pretty much tapping mantle temperatures right now."
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One fissure was observed early Wednesday morning spouting lava over 200 feet (61 meters) into the air.
Hawaii County officials said lava destroyed the electric utility's equipment on the highway, which knocked out power to Vacationland and Kapoho Beach Lots.
"You are at risk of being isolated due to possible lava inundation," the Hawaii County Civil Defense agency advised the public.
There were several small earthquakes at Kilauea's summit Wednesday, where the vent inside the volcano's Halemaumau Crater has grown along with a series of explosive eruptions that have sent rock and ash thousands of feet into the sky.
The U.S. Geological Survey released drone footage Wednesday of another fast-moving lava flow that trapped a man in Leilani Estates over the weekend. As lava rushed past the property, a USGS crew that was flying the drone used the aircraft to lead rescue teams to the stranded person. The person was safely evacuated.
A man was arrested in Leilani Estates after police say he fired a gun and assaulted another man after demanding that the man and his friends leave the area Tuesday.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remains closed because of the volcanic activity at the summit and the ongoing eruptions on Kilauea's eastern flanks. Park officials said that crews are working on clearing another roadway on the south side of the park that was covered by lava from previous eruptions. They hope the roadway will provide an alternative escape route if lava cuts off more roads to the north.
Strands of volcanic glass called as Pele's hair was accumulating on the ground in Leilani Estates and surrounding neighborhoods, and winds may blow lighter particles farther away, scientists said. The strands can cause irritation and respiratory problems when it comes in contact with people.
Pele, known as the goddess of volcanoes and fire, is an important figure in Hawaiian culture.
Volcanic gas emissions remain high from the eruption. Wind conditions for Wednesday were forecast to result in widespread vog — or volcanic smog— over the Big Island.
Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island has had it all over the past three weeks: molten rock shooting toward the sky, lava oozing from the ground and ash clouds rising miles into the air.
You can also add "vog" to the mix.
Scientists say higher sulfur dioxide emissions recorded at the volcano's vents in recent days are creating the potential for heavier than usual vog, or volcanic smog. So far, trade winds have been mostly blowing the gray haze offshore.
The U.S. Geological Survey has been answering questions about vog and other scientific terms pertaining to the Kilauea volcano.
On Tuesday, one Twitter user wrote to ask, “Is it safe to roast marshmallows over volcanic vents? Assuming you had a long enough stick, that is? Or would the resulting marshmallows be poisonous?”
The USGS replied, “Erm…we’re going to have to say no, that’s not safe. (Please don’t try!)”
WHAT IS VOG?
Volcanic smog, or air pollution, is created by vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide gas released from Kilauea. It reacts in the atmosphere with oxygen, sunlight, moisture and other gases and particles. In a matter of hours or days, it converts to fine particles that scatter sunlight, creating a haze that can be seen downwind of Kilauea, according to The Interagency Vog Dashboard, which is made up of Hawaii, U.S. and international agencies.
The U.S. Geological Survey said sulfur dioxide emissions from the volcano have more than doubled since the current eruption began.
Kilauea was belching 15,000 tons (13,607 metric tons) of the gas each day, up from 6,000 tons (5,443 metric tons) daily prior to the May 3 eruption. People living miles from the eruption are paying attention to the amount of noxious fumes pouring out of the volcano because it creates the potential for more vog.
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WHAT ARE THE HEALTH IMPACTS?
"Everyone is having symptoms now on some level," said Dr. Josh Green, a state senator and emergency room physician who has been volunteering in communities where lava fissures have opened in neighborhoods.
Symptoms for generally healthy people can include burning eyes, headaches and sore throats. But those with asthma or other respiratory problems can end up hospitalized.
Those who are healthy, physically active and don't smoke can usually tolerate basic symptoms, Green said, adding hospitals are seeing more patients with difficulty breathing.
Green's mom, Natasha Green, who lives on the Kona side of the island, said the vog was particularly bad on Tuesday. "It makes it very hard to breathe," she said, adding that her other symptoms include coughing and watery and stinging eyes.
She's had to use an inhaler, which she doesn't need when there isn't vog. She's a former smoker, "so that's probably part of the problem," she said.
WHO IS AFFECTED?
Vog can affect areas far from the volcano, including the western side of the Big Island and even other islands.
But lately, trade winds have been blowing most of the vog offshore. The National Weather Service said it expected trade winds to slow this weekend, creating hazardous air quality.
With trade winds, communities where lava fissures have opened and those downwind are the most affected.
Kilauea is erupting on Hawaii's largest island, so there are plenty of areas that aren't suffering from the effects of vog.
"My phone's been ringing off the hook," said Steven Businger, chairman of the University of Hawaii's atmospheric sciences department. "A little old lady out of Minnesota wants to know if she should cancel her vacation — that kind of thing."
He told her not to cancel because the vog was blowing away from her planned destination, the Big Island resort town of Waikoloa.
Businger also runs the Vog Measurement and Prediction Project. The website provides current vog conditions for various sites around the Big Island.
IS THE VOG WORSE NOW?
With an increase in emissions, there's more vog, said Lisa Young, environmental health specialist for the state health department's Clean Air Branch.
Bruce Corker, a Kona coffee farmer, has noticed. When he looks down from his farm at Kailua Bay, it's hard to make out the water because it's the same gray color as the sky.
"For me, it's just visual," he said. "I don't feel any effects on my lungs. I don't smell anything."
Corker, who grew up in Southern California, compares vog to "Los Angeles-like smog."
Retired photojournalist Chris Stewart says there's one good thing about vog: It intensifies the colors of a sunset.
But it depends on how thick the haze is. "Some days it's thin enough you can see the sun passing through," he said. "But other days we just go inside because we can't see it at all."
Stewart said he's grateful to be living on the Big island's west side — away from the volcano.
"I almost feel guilty enjoying our sunsets," he said.
Associated Press journalists Audrey McAvoy and Sophia Yan contributed to this report.