Tom Stevens | Illustration by Guy Junker
I had never seen a road on fire before.
If you’re like me, you go through life with certain assumptions: water is wet; snow is cold; roads don’t burn.
But under the right conditions, anything can happen. And the conditions were right in 1990 at the historic Big Island town of Kalapana. The roads burned, and so did everything else.
To western eyes, the architect of all this destruction was Kilauea Volcano, which had been blurping out molten lava since 1983. The lava inched down Kilauea in starts and stops for seven years before it finally reached the coast. When it got there, Kalapana stood in the way.
Hawaiians saw it differently. In their view, the goddess Pele rules Kilauea and all other Polynesian volcanoes. This was her lava flow, and Kalapana was hers to spare or destroy.
“Pele makes the land, and she takes the land away,” one resident shrugged as her seventy-five-year-old wood-frame house burst into flames.
At least, I think that’s what she said. I was pretty woozy at that point after inhaling burning road for two days. For those who haven’t had the experience, tar roads ignite when overrun by lava, sending up roiling columns of black, greasy, toxic smoke thick enough to chew.
Most everything else in Kalapana burned with a white or gray smoke, and the lava itself exhaled a shimmery, sulfurous haze. This was not the cindery ‘a‘a lava seen at Makena, on Maui’s south coast, but pahoehoe—the bloopy, liquid form that cools into silver pillows of rock.
Pahoehoe runs swiftly down steep terrain, but puddles and spreads out when it reaches the shore. At Kalapana, the advancing lava crept along so slowly you could kneel in its path. Get close enough, and you could hear an eerie, music-box tinkling: razor-thin flakes of rock scaling off the cooling lava. After a certain point, of course, you moved.
Anything that couldn’t move—or be moved—was doomed. This forced some painful choices. Having opted to live on an active volcano in the first place, most Kalapana residents I interviewed were fatalistic about losing their homes. But two congregations faced a critical choice: move the church or lose it?
The Catholics decided to move their historic church, a century-old white frame building with stained-glass windows and magnificent interior murals. Working steadily through two days and nights, the congregants built a sturdy “crate” around the fragile building, jacked the church up, and trucked it away just as the lava came into view.
After a long and heart-wrenching meeting, the town’s Methodists decided to surrender their church to Madame Pele. “We are the church,” one member reasoned. “That’s only a building.”
Some of the town’s graceful wooden buildings had stood for 125 years, and it was painful seeing them succumb to the inexorable molten tide. The lava crackled up on each house slowly, almost respectfully, setting fire first to the dry grass of long-untended yards. Then a lava “toe” would nudge the house, and a ghost of white smoke would twist into the air. Within minutes, the house would vanish in a roar of flame.
Trees suffered a similar fate. Before 1990, thousands of mature coconut palms lined the Kalapana coast in groves that dated back to monarchy times. Within three days, the lava consumed them all.
Places vanished, too. The historic fresh water-spring at “Queen’s Bath,” the famous “black-sand” beach at Kaimu, even the popular surf break off that beach—all turned to stone.
Geologists call the process vulcanism, but I like the Kalapana version. Pele makes the land, and she takes the land away.