Officials: ‘Not the time for sightseeing’ in lava-hit neighborhood after volcano erupts

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PAHOA, Hawaii — Hawaiian authorities are urging sightseers to stay away as Leilani Estates residents return to check on their neighborhood, which is threatened by lava and toxic gases emerging from fissures in the subdivision.

Big Island’s Kilauea volcano erupted Thursday, spewing molten rock and high levels of sulfur dioxide.

Cracks emerged in the volcano’s East Rift Zone — an area of fissures miles away from the volcano’s summit.

All residents of Leilani Estates, a community of about 1,700 people near Big Island’s eastern edge, and nearby Lanipuna Gardens were ordered to evacuate.

The eruption was followed by a 6.9-magnitude earthquake Friday.

As of Sunday, 10 fissures had opened and 26 homes had been destroyed. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said active venting of lava and hazardous fumes continued.

The Kilauea volcano has been erupting almost continuously since 1983, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Activity along the East Rift Zone has shifted down and then back up the rift, said meteorologist Michael Guy.

Each one of the episodes that has occurred in this 35-year period has lasted months to years, so there’s no definitive way to predict how the volcanic activity will last, Guy said.

Some Leilani Estates residents were able to return to their properties from Sunday to retrieve pets, medicine and vital documents.

On Sunday evening, Civil Defense said Leilani residents would be able to check on their properties until further notice between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. local time, with authorities on the scene determining which areas were safe to enter.

“Please be aware that because of unstable conditions that involve toxic gas, earthquakes and lava activities, lines of safety can change at any time. You must be prepared to leave areas if required,” it said in a statement.

“Please, the residents of Leilani need your help. This is not the time for sightseeing. You can help tremendously by staying out of the area,” Civil Defense said, warning that police had established a policy of zero tolerance towards looting or vandalism.

“Under Emergency Provisions, any looting or vandalism will be treated as a felony.”

Volcanic gases at Lanipuna Gardens meant residents did not have access to that neighborhood, it said.

The eruptions have released high levels of sulfur dioxide into the air, according to the civil defense agency. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says the gas can be life-threatening.

Breathing large amounts of sulfur dioxide can result in burning of the nose and throat, and breathing difficulties.

Senior citizens, the young and people with respiratory issues are especially vulnerable to the gas, the state’s Emergency Management Agency said.

The Hawaii Department of Health has warned consumers that no masks sold to the general public in stores will protect against “the extremely dangerous volcanic gases” being released.

“First responders require special masks and training not available to private citizens,” the department said in a statement Sunday.

“The best way to protect yourself and your family from the extremely dangerous volcanic gases is to leave the immediate area of the volcano defined by the police and fire department,” it said.

Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator Talmadge Magno told KHON on Saturday that some first responders had been affected by the gasses on the first night when levels were particularly high — experiencing “headaches and so forth” — but that they had recovered.

The American Red Cross has opened two shelters at the Pahoa and Keaau Community Centers, where some evacuees have gathered while they await news about their homes.

Mayor Harry Lim said on Twitter Sunday that an eruption information center would open in Pahoa on Monday to address questions from those affected.

The Hawaii State Department of Education said all public schools on Big Island would be open Monday but that students absent because of evacuations would not be penalized.

It said in a statement that school buildings had been checked for earthquake damage and found to be safe.

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