Makamae St at Leilani Ave

Makamae St at Leilani Ave

Our journey into Leilani Estates led us face to face with Madame Pele.  Here is my continuing story about how we found the elusive lava that destroyed a beautiful community in Puna.

After we left Edwin’s farm and headed into Leilani Estates, we let Robert, another unforgettable character in this drama, lead us into the heart of the eruption.

Robert, who seemed to know everyone in Puna, appeared to live nowhere but lived everywhere around Puna.  More urban intelligentsia than a hippie local living off-the-grid, he and his long, scraggly dreadlocks bounced with unmatched energy of a man itching to get somewhere or do something exciting. 

We relied on Robert to get us into the evacuation zone, and after a few phone calls, he got permission from a guy who lived off Hinalo St. to allow us to cut across his property into Leilani Estates.  We could not risk trespassing on private property but we also couldn’t risk driving on the open road as we had already gotten past a crucial roadblock.

The home sat on the edge of the Malama Ki forest reserve, and although I think it was mostly chutzpah, Robert claimed he knew the way through the forest and led us on a march in search of the the eruption. 

Robert, who by then took off his shirt, hopped like a rabbit though the dense growth like a man on a mission.  He led Caleb, the TV crew, and myself into heavy brush that reached  far overhead.  He followed no path but used his wild intuition to get us to the main road.

Yes I am wearing a pink and blue polo.  Marching through the brush.  Photo by Caleb Jones.
Yes I am wearing a pink and blue polo. Marching through the brush. Photo by Caleb Jones.

I naively stumbled through the overgrowth tripping over roots and sinking into deep, invisible crevasses in the ground.  Earlier in the day, someone had mentioned how a dog had vanished downed a crack in the ground and was never found.  Every time my footing slipped deeper into the earth, I feared I’d find that missing dog. Prickly burrs stuck to my socks and blood trickled down my legs from small scratches suffered as I huffed and puffed  through the heavy bush.  At one point, I felt as if the forest was going to swallow us whole yet Robert kept encouraging us to forge forward as he led the way.


Stuck in the brush.  Photo by Caleb Jones
Stuck in the brush. Photo by Caleb Jones

Caleb and I selfishly drained a bottle of water as the Puna sun beat down heavy on us as we trekked along in this wild adventure we would not forget for a very long time.

Caleb struggling in the thick Puna bush.
Caleb struggling in the thick Puna bush.

After doing a few turnarounds and managing to climb through what seemed to be a valley, we finally stumbled onto a clearing on an empty lot that sat directly on Leilani Ave.  We quickly marched over to the street and began to walk down the road. 

The beautiful neighborhood was eerily quiet as the mandatory evacuations cleared everyone out.  Homes with towering palm trees and lush tropical gardens sat empty of their owners.  The subdivision was a paradise and it was no wonder people risked living on a rift zone. 

A helicopter buzzed low over our heads assessing the damage from the lava.  I feared they were going to report us to the authorities and we’d be escorted out.I quickly began to trot ahead of our colorful group fearing the police were just around the bend.  I was desperate to get lava and I wasn’t going to get caught this far into our adventure. 

As we made a bend in the road, we found it.  Lava covered the intersection of Leilani Ave at Makamae St. The lava spread across the road and spilled into several lots of land.  It appeared to be more than ten feet high in some spots.  The flow was incredibly massive.  It was hard to see where it was coming from but we later figured it had come from fissures 2 and 7. 

A man films the lava in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

I ran at full speed to get to the flow as my anxiety took over my emotions.  I had put a load of pressure on myself to get this shot as it was a big story.  Lava erupting in the middle of a neighborhood is not an everyday event. 

I photographed the scene while the TV crew made their report and Caleb interviewed a few residents who lingered around the site.  As I framed my shots, I  found it difficult to illustrate how much lava was actually in front of us.  It stretched all around us and it seemingly built up over a few hours.  It was just incredible. 

While lava is extremely dangerous, most lava flows in Hawaii move relatively slow and, other than having to avoid toxic gases, we were able to walk up to it with little danger to ourselves.  Caleb put his video camera on the ground in front of the lava and let it run with little fear it would be swallowed by the flow. 

Caleb doing his best not to set his camera on fire.
Caleb doing his best not to set his camera on fire.

The flow tore down telephone poles leaving down power scattered across the road.  Smoke from a burning structure rose in the distance.  Acrid smoke also rose from the burning asphalt covered by the hot magma.  The paradise I had know a few blocks away would change forever as nothing was going to stop the lava.

A power line and transformer lay on top of a lava flow in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

The lava we found at the intersection of Makamae St and Leilani Ave was just the beginning.  The amount of lava that flowed out within the two days of the eruption was horrifying.  As time went on, the entire region we hiked on including parts of Edwin’s farm, was completely covered by the lava flow.  Some areas in the lava zone were reported to have over 30 feet or more of lava built up.  What we thought was massive was just the beginning.  

A mail box can be scene near the lava flow in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, HI.
A mail box can be scene near the lava flow in the Leilani Estates, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Pahoa, HI. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)


Painfully Slow

Painfully Slow

“When I first arrived, I saw black smoke billowing not so far in the distance – the lava had struck a pile of car tires. When it burns, it’s quite amazing. It’s mesmerizing,” I was quoted saying during an interview with Reuters News Service on their photo blog.  Reuters sent me to cover the impeding doom facing Pahoa Village on the Big Island last week as lava from Kilauea Volcano threatens to split the rural town in two.  A recent lava flow has made its way down the volcano’s slope directly towards the middle of town.  Many residents are able to do nothing as lava stops for no one.

The blog continues with my story:   “Lava is unpredictable. It could go left or right, up or down. It will move 5 meters in an hour, then not move at all. And it usually moves slowly, like squeezing toothpaste down a hill – but it will get there eventually. Unlike a tsunami or an earthquake or even a hurricane, it’s a painfully slow death.”

And clearly residents are anxiously waiting for Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of the volcano, to cast her judgement on the land of Puna.

For hundreds of thousands of years, lava has erupted on the Big Island helping make the island the biggest of the Hawaiian chain.  The volcanoes have not been silence since they formed the Big Island.  Since 1983, lava has flowed from Kilauea and the USGS has reported Kilauea is responsible for creating more than 500 acres of new land.  “The Lava flows had also destroyed 214 structures, and resurfaced 14.3 km (8.9 mi) of highway, burying them with as much as 35 m (115 ft) of lava.”

Luckily for the town, the lava has currently stalled but the threat still remains and nothing can predict whether the lava will stop or continue.  But if Kilauea’s past is a sign of the future, the lava will not cease and will enviably destroy much of the town of Pahoa along with everything else in the flow’s path.

Lava spouts from a hot spot as the lava flow from Mt. Kilauea inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii

While on assignment, Reuters was granted permission to fly over the flow so we hired a helicopter to get a better view of the flow’s destruction. Luka, who works for Hawaii Volcanoes Helicopter Tours, piloted the tiny little chopper and ferried me over the lava’s path. Very little compares to lifting off in a helicopter, especially one with no doors.  Luka’s chopper was the size of a Prius and as we left the ground, it seemed we stood still and everything fell below us.

The lava flow path from Mt. Kilauea inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii

Luka took me over the town and up the trail to the Pu’u O’o vent where the lava is oozing slowly down the mountain.  The aerial photos were noticed by Reuters’s London office and Karolina Tagaris called me and had a quick chat with me about my experiences with this natural disaster. You can see the blog here as well as a write up by the BBC’s News in Pictures site as well.  The interview became roughly my story without much of her input.

I continued, “I asked the pilot to follow the path of the lava back to the crater and it was quite amazing to watch the lava flow. There’s a lot of steam and smoke and you can see some lava being created inside the crater, which looks like a bubbling cauldron. It’s so primitive it’s almost as if the world is being created – I found myself looking for dinosaurs!”

There’s nothing that really compares to seeing lava on the Big Island. I’ve tried my best to document what’s going on with the volcano over the years I’ve lived in Hawaii. I’m not a lava photographer as I don’t care to hike out miles in the middle of the night to see nature at it’s best but there are times like this when I have access to fly over it…nothing can really match it.

Smoke rises from the lava flow from Mt. Kilauea as it inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii




Look!  Up in the sky!  Its a bird!  Its a plane!  Its…uh…wait a minute…its…its…its just a guy in a helicopter with a camera.

I wasn’t superman for the day but it sure felt like it!  September proved to be pretty exciting as I was commissioned to shoot for Hemispheres Magazine, United Airlines In-flight magazine,  and cover the Big Island for their Three Perfect Days section.  In three days, I drove (and flew) across the Big Island shooting the lushness of Hilo, the cold stars of Mauna Kea, the blackness of Kilauea, and the resorts of the Kohala Coast…all the while fighting rain, clouds, chill, and vog.  What a mess those three perfect days!

Perhaps the most exciting bit had me floating over lava and sea in a chartered helicopter.  How exciting to ride up in a the sky with no doors and only a buckle and God to keep me from becoming part of the aina!

We took off from the Hilo airport with little introduction to what lay ahead.  We walked straight out onto the runway, buckled in, and away we went.  Jersey Rob of Paradise Helicopters said fuggitaboutit as it was routine and I had nuthin to worry about.  I’ve flown several times in military Blackhawks for work here and there but this was one of those small four seaters that doesn’t offer any imagination to what lies just beyond the seatbelts.  As we levitated off the ground and shot across the green lush areas around Hilo, you immediately sense the uniqueness of being in a small bubble, no bigger than a Hyndai’s car cabin, spinning through the cotton.  Yet just outside that doorless portal gushed propeller wash and streaming jets of air.  I stuck my head and arms out a bit too far and found the wind nearly tearing me and my cameras out into the abyss.

Our first hover was directly over Honolii surf spot just north of Hilo.  A group of early morning surfers, who were not to keen to having a helicopter disturbing their morning sets, awaited their anticipated breaks and I perfectly captured the lone girl and the rocks below.  If you look close enough, you can actually see tropical fish swimming around her.  Unbelievable!

After a quick hover over the beach and surf spots, we zoomed back over Hilo and flew to the volcanic rift zone.  Green gave away to the mesmerizing black volcanic landscape.  Black lava rock.  Endless.  As if life first started.  It all appears like death but its actually life giving as the eruptions create new land.  Since 1983, the lava flows from Kilauea produced hundreds of acres of new land but has also destroyed entire communities and covered many once beautiful beaches and landscapes.  My pictures and words can’t describe what is out in Volcano, HI.  Every time I go out there, I stare and get lost in what once was…endless lava fields of blackness and life.

The pilot few us over Kilauea and directly over Pu’u Oo cone, where the lava is currently flowing.  Now this is the exciting part. Magma…as Dr. Evil would say.  Loads of magma flowing like a river.  Lava poured and bubbled all over making for a SPECTACULAR show.  National Geographic ain’t got nothing on what’s out there.  A river of lava oozed down the ridge like glowing hot toothpaste gurgling from the depths.  We probably hovered no more than 30 or more stories above the lava but it felt as if a portal to the underworld lay below.

Just mesmerizing!  Lava.  Magma.  Darkness.  Red. Black.  A little grey.  Amazing.

If you can’t fly the month of December on United, please download the spread from here.  Its a small pdf file which should easily download.

A big thank you to the guys at Paradise Helicopter in Hawaii for helping me get the shot.  Thanks Rob.  Another big mahalo to the BIBV for providing so much to make this impossible trip happen.  Thanks Jessica.

But no thanks to the crappy weather.  No thanks to the grey clouds and the congestive vog.  Couldn’t make perfect this time but you just wait.