‘Pele’s The Boss’: Hawaii Residents Ride Out Uncertainty As Lava Devours More Big Island Homes

In the fall of 2014, Scott Wiggers was driving through an older neighborhood on Hawaii’s Big Island when he spotted what he sensed was his dream home. The property had a gated circular driveway, with a renovated house hidden on a two-acre grove of mature fruit trees.

“I’d been looking aggressively in, specifically, Leilani Estates,” said Wiggers, who moved to the island in 2011 and works as a tour guide at nearby Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. “I thought, this is exactly what I want, but there’s no way on earth I’ll be able to afford it.”

Wiggers was in luck, however. Shortly after he drove by, that house went on the market – and was in his price range. He jumped on it, and to his surprise, his offer was accepted.

The fact that it all sat atop the gentle slopes of Kilauea, the world’s longest-erupting volcano – inside the most hazardous of nine island zones for lava flows, no less – didn’t faze him.

“The last lava flow to come through here was a long time ago, so I didn’t think there was any threat whatsoever,” Wiggers told The Washington Post, referring to the Leilani Estates neighborhood. “I’m a bit of a risk taker.”

Nearly four years later, whether his risk was worth it remains to be seen. An increase in volcanic activity has forced nearly a dozen vents to open in the subdivision, bringing with it spewing lava, historic earthquakes and toxic gas that has rendered parts of the once-serene residential area unrecognizable.

Last Monday, the floor of a crater on top of the Kilauea volcano collapsed, sending its pool of lava back underground and causing a series of small earthquakes. Scientists predicted the magma would travel elsewhere and push its way back to the surface somewhere in the East Rift Zone.

They were correct.

Days later, the ground split open on the east end of Leilani Estates, exposing an angry red beneath the lush landscape. From the widening gash, molten rock burbled and splashed, then shot dozens of feet in the air.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency called it “active volcanic fountaining.” Some residents insisted it was Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, coming to reclaim her land. About 1,700 Leilani Estates residents were ordered to evacuate amid threats of fires and “extremely high levels of dangerous” sulfur dioxide gas.

Soon, another such fissure had formed a few streets to the west. Then another, and another. For days, hot steam and noxious gases rose from the vents, before magma broke through, with some lava fountains shooting as high as 330 feet into the air – taller than the tip of the Statue of Liberty torch.

As of Monday, at least 10 fissures were reported in Leilani Estates, according to the county civil defense agency. Lava spouted along the vents and oozed through the neighborhood, leaving lines of smoldering trees in its wake and igniting cars and buildings.

So far, lava has destroyed at least 35 structures, 26 of which were homes, the agency said Monday.

Officials say more outbreaks are likely to occur along the rift zone, and it’s unclear so far how long they will continue or where new fissures might form.

“It’s kind of like a water pipe bursting underground. The pipe might burst in several places but the water’s going to find the easiest pathway to get out, not necessarily above every single hole in the pipe,” said Tracy Gregg, an associate professor of geology at the University of Buffalo who has worked on Kilauea.

She said the fact that there are still eruptions from so many new fissures forming suggests the lava is from a new batch of magma rising from deep within the volcano.

“We don’t have a good idea of how big it is and how long it’ll last,” Gregg said. “It could be a couple of days, a couple of weeks. It could be a couple of months. We just have to wait and see.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of evacuees have been waiting it out at local churches, Red Cross shelters or elsewhere on the island, wondering when – or if – they can return home.

At least one resident found out her home had burned through a video circulating online.

Amber Makuakane, 37, an elementary school teacher and single mother of two, told Hawaii News Now she was struggling with how to break the news to her children that lava had destroyed their three-bedroom home in Leilani Estates after spotting its remains in aerial footage.

Makuakane noted tearfully she had grown up nearby, and had lived in the neighborhood for nine years, along with her parents.

“The volcano and the lava – it’s always been a part of my life,” Makuakane told the Associated Press. “It’s devastating . . . but I’ve come to terms with it.”

Even among evacuees, the attitude toward Kilauea’s latest outbursts has seemed to be a blend of sadness, acceptance and, for some, deference to Mother Nature. In interviews and in online forums, several residents have invoked Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess said to live inside Kilauea, when asked about the fate of their homes.

“What can you do? You have no control over it,” Leilani Estates resident Steve Clapper told the AP Monday morning at an evacuation shelter. “Pele’s the boss, you know.”

Over the weekend, residents placed ti leaves in some of the cracks in the roads, meant as a sacred offering to Pele.

“The way I kind of look at it is, the land doesn’t really belong to us. It belongs to Pele,” Jordan Sonner, a Big Island Realtor who evacuated her home near Leilani Estates, told The Post Saturday. “We get to live on it while we can, and if she wants it back, she’ll take it. I have good insurance.”

The lava, many residents said, was an integral part of the life there, to be dealt with like heavy snowfall in upstate New York or humidity in Florida. The nearby national park, perhaps, is where the power of the lava – and the volcano from which it comes – is treated with the most deference.

“During a volcanic eruption, we are reminded that our planet is an ever-changing environment whose basic processes are beyond human control,” the park’s website states. “As much as we have altered the face of the Earth to suit our needs, we can only stand in awe before the power of an eruption.”

Still, a handful of residents have refused to budge.

“I won’t leave until it’s an inch from my house,” Leilani Estates resident Greg Webber told USA Today. “I’ve been through this a million times.”

Likewise, Scott Wiggers, the tour guide who purchased his dream home in 2014, now sits and waits inside it, on the western edge of Leilani Estates, about two miles away from the nearest fissure.

Unlike most residents there – and despite a mandatory evacuation order – he has chosen to stay because, in his opinion, his home is safely outside of the northeast-southwest line along which the fissures have been forming.

He has spent his time posting videos of the lava flows to YouTube and fielding requests from evacuated neighbors to check on their homes. In one of his videos, lava overtakes a house near one of the fissures, igniting it. In another, he stops as he sees gas wafting up from cracks in the road.

“It’s just awesome to see the earth alive right in front of you,” Wiggers said. “Even inside Volcanoes National Park, when we’re exploring past lava flows . . . I still get goosebumps every time.”

The county civil defense agency on Sunday announced certain Leilani Estates residents could return briefly to their homes to retrieve pets, medicine or important items left behind – but would need to leave immediately afterward because of “the very unstable conditions of air quality and of the roads.” But on Monday, officials said no one would be allowed to return after all because conditions were too unstable.

They continued to urge residents to evacuate, given a triple whammy of threats: Lava spewing forth from below; earthquakes – including the strongest to hit Hawaii in more than four decades — jolting the Big Island’s residents; and noxious fumes in the air.

“Being in Hawaii and being around lava, you get used to the way it behaves and so you kind of become comfortable around it,” said Wendy Stovall, a volcanologist with the Geological Survey. The lava flows “are mesmerizing to see. I understand why people want to see them but it’s not advisable. It’s a dangerous situation.”

The county civil defense agency put it more bluntly: “This is not the time for sightseeing. You can help tremendously by staying out of the area.”

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