(Reuters) – A menacing river of molten lava that bubbled over a road and overran a cemetery on its path toward a village on Hawaii’s Big Island crossed onto a residential property on Tuesday where it threatened to consume its first home, officials said.
The slow-moving lava from the continuously erupting Kilauea volcano has been advancing on the town of Pahoa for weeks, with officials warning repeatedly it is hot enough to incinerate any homes, roads and businesses in its path.
Molten lava is hotter than 1,650 degrees F (900 C), according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Residents living in the projected path of the lava, whose leading edge is 82 yards (meters) wide, have been urged to prepare for evacuation and many have slowly emptied their homes of prized possessions as the lava approaches.
“People have their life savings in their properties here. They face losing it all,” said Mike Metcalf, whose Pahoa Auto Parts business is potentially in the path of the lava flow, although his home is in the clear.
The lava menacing Pahoa began bubbling out of the Kilauea volcano on June 27 and initially threatened a smaller community before turning toward Pahoa. It came to a standstill in September, raising hopes of a respite, before resuming its meandering trudge several weeks ago.
The lava, whose glowing leading edge has sometimes triggered methane explosions, crossed onto its first residential property early on Tuesday, the USGS’ Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said in a statement.
With its hardened top layer extending like a darkened river up the volcano’s slope, the lava has devoured grass and trees, turning vegetation into smoke that wafts into Pahoa.
The lava flow was advancing about 10 yards an hour toward Pahoa village, a historic former sugar plantation in the east of the Big Island consisting of small shops and homes, with a population of about 800 people.
Education officials said they would close an endangered elementary school on Wednesday and temporarily shutter four more schools on Thursday.
Crews have been building temporary access roads and trying to protect Highway 130, a route traveled by as many as 10,000 cars a day. Two other roads have been closed, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi’s office said.
Authorities have not allowed residents to approach the leading edge, but people have taken helicopter tours to watch the slow-moving disaster.
“I can see the smoke. I can smell it. But they’re not letting anybody in to see it,” Metcalf said of the lava. People here would like to see what’s taking them out.”
The Kilauea volcano has erupted from its Pu’u O’o vent since 1983. The last home destroyed by lava on the Big Island was in Kalapana in 2012, according to Big Island Civil Defense.
Between 1983 and 1990, lava flows from the volcano destroyed more than 180 homes, according to the USGS.
Kay Furse, 54, a front-desk employee at the Kalani Oceanside Retreat in Pahoa, said residents in the path of the lava had been moving items out of their homes over the past month, with help from neighbors.
“It’s been stressful, a lot of anticipation and waiting and wondering,” she said. “I think people accept it and are prepared for it.”