Sightseers stand on a section of lava that looks like melted candle wax at Highcastle. Last year, 2.65 million people visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Below, Puu Oo sent lava skyward in one of the many spectacular fountain displays in the mid-80s.

Lava’s allure

Thousands come by land,
sea and air to see nature's
amazing handiwork

Kilauea's changing face

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> When Jack Thompson does the laundry for his bed and breakfast, he puts it in a backpack, climbs onto his motorcycle, and rides across lava flows until he reaches a road that takes him to a laundromat.


Usually he rides over cooled, hardened lava, but sometimes he unexpectedly hits glowing red rock.

"You just go through it fast. The tires will smoke a little," he said.

Running a bed and breakfast in Royal Gardens subdivision, which has been surrounded and partially overrun by lava in the last 20 years, Thompson could be described as working in a challenging business environment.

Others have also found Kilauea's ongoing east-rift eruption to be a business opportunity with challenges. The helicopter tour industry is one.

On a typical Monday, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters flies 100 passengers to the eruption area, said part-owner Dave Griffin. His company has flown as many as 400 passengers there in a single day.

The company last year invested $20 million in 10 super-quiet ECO-Star helicopters. Those aircraft owe their existence to a challenge of the early 1990s, complaints about helicopter noise.

Griffin went to France to work with manufacturer Eurocopters to design a "21st century helicopter," he said.

Another challenge is flight restrictions imposed in the mid-90s by the Federal Aviation Administration. Helicopters must fly at least 1,500 feet above ground and may not fly in cloudy weather.

Blue Hawaiian gave Thompson, the last property owner living in Royal Gardens, a cell phone so he can give them daily weather reports.

The company also flies customers to Thompson's bed and breakfast, run something like a hobby. Thompson said he gets only about four families per year.

Thompson likes the isolation and still enjoys the lava, now about five miles from his home, but still easily visible from his balcony.

"I've seen rivers of lava that make you feel you're in Jurassic Park," he said.

The current eruption at Kilauea began on Jan. 3, 1983. Lava flows from the volcano have destroyed 189 structures and caused an estimated $61 million in damage.

Even if Kilauea's eruption shut off, Blue Hawaiian and a half dozen other tour helicopter companies would still have business, Griffin said.

"We fly over Haleakala (on Maui) every day and there's no red lava there," he said.


Tour ships and bus companies also benefit from the presence of Kilauea volcano.

By the end of this year 114 ships with 218,000 passengers will have docked in Hilo, said harbormaster Ian Birnie. On a typical recent day, 10 buses were lined up before 7 a.m. to take passengers to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, he said.

On the way back, the buses stop at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut gift shop. "You should see the packages that come in here," Birnie said.

Most of the cruise ships schedule their sailing so they pass the Puna coast at night, where lava flows into the sea. "It's the highlight of the cruise for some people," Birnie said.

State tourism statistics suggest the eruption is one of the primary attractions for tourists visiting the Big Island.

From 1983 to 2000, statewide visitor arrivals went to 6.95 million from 4.36 million, a 59 percent increase.

Attendance at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park went to 2.65 million visitors last year, from 1.5 million in 1983, nearly a 77 percent increase.

Kathryn Grout, who operates three vacation cottages in Volcano village, just outside the national park entrance, says she's had no challenge getting customers.

After national television coverage of the "Mother's Day flow" last spring, rental inquiries poured in.

"This is the busiest September we've ever had," she said. "The first thing everybody wants to know is, 'How do we get to the lava?' "


Kilauea's changing face


Kilauea's summit becomes deformed during the filling and emptying of its magma reservoir. When the reservoir begins to swell from activity deep below the surface, tiltmeters record the amount of inflation. The summit then subsides as magma drains laterally to feed an eruption of the rift zone and the magma reservoir deflates.

Phase One: 1983-86

In the eruption's first phase, Kilauea built Puu Oo cone and displayed spectacular fountains that reached 1,540 feet


>> Jan. 3: Eruption breaks out at Napau crater, fountaining stretches four miles.

>>  March 2-3: Two homes destroyed in Royal Gardens, the first of 182, plus seven other structures.

>> April 3: During Episode 3 at "1123 vent," lava fountains reach 920 feet high.

>> June 13: Episode 4, eruption centers at Puu Oo, the first of 44 high fountains there eventually reaching 1,540 feet.


>> March 25: Mauna Loa begins 22-day eruption simultaneously with Kilauea.


>> June 12: Geologist George Ulrich steps into molten lava and is saved by Dario Tedesco.


>> June 30: Episode 47, last of high fountains.

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