HONOLULU – Lava has been slowly snaking its way toward rural Hawaii communities for months, but it took an oozing stream of molten rock just 45 minutes to burn down an empty house.
Firefighters standing by to tackle any spreading wildfires let the flames consume the 1,100-square-foot structure Monday afternoon as a relative of the homeowner watched and recorded video of the destruction with an iPhone.
It was the first house incinerated by a lava flow from Kilauea volcano on the Big Island that scientists have been warning the public about since August. And it likely won't be the last.
The home's nearest neighbor is about a half-mile away, Hawaii County Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira said. A garage and barn structure near the destroyed home could also burn down soon, he said.
The lava emerged from a vent in June and entered Pahoa, the largest town in Big Island's isolated and mostly agricultural Puna district, on Oct. 26. Since then, it has smothered part of a cemetery and burned down a garden shed. It also burned tires, some metal materials and mostly vegetation in its path.
The leading edge of the lava flow had bypassed the home, but it was a lobe of lava that broke out upslope and widened that reached the house. Where the lava will reach next, and when, is hard to predict.
The county estimates the value of the destroyed home at about $200,000, Oliveira said. The renters left in August, he said.
Officials would make arrangements for homeowners to watch any homes burn as a means of closure and to document the destruction for insurance purposes.
The front of the flow stalled Oct. 30 and remained about 480 feet from Pahoa Village Road on Monday, a main street that goes through downtown.
Crews have been working on alternate routes to be used when lava hits Highway 130, considered a lifeline for the Puna district.
Many residents have evacuated or are ready to leave if necessary.
Imelda Raras lives on the other end of Apaa Street from where the lava burned its first house. She and her family have put a lot of their belongings in storage and are prepared to go to a friend's home if the lava gets close.
"I'm scared right now," she said as she watched smoke from the burning house. "What will happen next? We will be waiting."
Raras said she's thinking about the mounting storage costs.
"I think our lives will be unstable," she said. "I hope our house will be spared."
The family is ready to go, but Raras said they will do so with heavy hearts.
"Because it's hard to leave your own house," she said. "It's one of the hardest things to do."