Hawaiʻi County Fire Department Responds to Lava Flow

May 28, 2018

Pahoehoe lava advancing west from fissure 7 (lava fountain in background) on Leilani Avenue.
Credit U.S. Geological Survey

Hawaiʻi County’s Fire Department is one of the key first responder organizations working overtime in lower Puna. No firefighters have been injured, but dangers linger as crews work to deal with the impact of continuing lava flows in the lower East Rift Zone. HPR contributing reporter Sherry Bracken talked with the Fire Chief about the risks.

Hawaiʻi County Fire Chief Darren Rosario says his crews are working closely with the Hawaiʻi Army National Guard Combat Support Team. They’ve helped with evacuations, but that’s not all.

“We’re monitoring the sulfur dioxide levels and determining where it’s safe or how long people can stay in there.”

A week ago, when lava crossed Pohoiki Road in two places, people were trapped between the flows. The Fire Department rescued four people that evening.

“One of the risks is flying over an active lava flow. Should there be an aircraft accident it would be really unforgiving. Second is flying in increasing emissions, primarily sulfur dioxide. We do not allow any of our personnel into these hazard areas unless it is something we absolutely must do. We went in and got those guys out. There were 3 personnel we were unable to extricate due to increasing sulfur dioxide and visibility. Two of them got out on foot. The third person was extricated the very next morning.”

The Maui Incident Management Team has members on island.  Hawaiʻi County Fire has established a fire and medic unit for the Leilani Estates area. That ensures the Pāhoa Fire Station, one of the busiest on the island, can continue its regular duties.  There has been one brush fire so far. Chief Rosario says high sulphur dioxide levels made it unsafe, so he ordered residents to evacuate and let the fire burn itself out.

The Chief says his job is to support Mayor Harry Kim’s desire to allow residents to be in the lava flow area.  But he also says that means both civilians and rescuers can be jeopardized by lava and SO2. 

Chief:  “A decision was made to try to bring normalcy to the community, but in the interests of safety, I want to plead and ask, go in, get your stuff out, and leave the area, and be safe.”