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Mauna Loa lava will reach Main Street with a “very high probability,” according to the USGS

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii (KHNL/Gray News) — As Mauna Loa’s eruption continues, the state is bracing for a possible closure of the Daniel K. Inouye Highway within days. The main thoroughfare connects Hilo and Kona.

The US Geological Survey says there is a “very high probability” that lava from Mauna Loa’s eruption will reach the highway and urges local residents to be prepared.

“It’s likely to come around the north side of Pu’u Huluhulu, which is right off the Mauna Kea turn off of the Saddle Road,” Ken Hon, senior scientist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, said at a news conference Wednesday.

If the lava flow continues at about 130 meters per hour, USGS said it could not reach the road until Friday at the earliest.

Lava can be seen from Saddle Road on the Big Island on Tuesday. (Credit: @THEBARPILOTS/TMX/CNN)

But as of 7 p.m. Wednesday, Hon said the lava had entered flat terrain and slowed to a speed of 24 meters per hour.

“The terrain is what slows it down. There’s no doubt that it’s also getting farther from the vent…we’re seeing more crystals…they’re getting hard and blocking to resist,” the Hon explained.

State and county officials say they are preparing to close the freeway and divert traffic if necessary.

Gov. David Ige said he plans to activate the Hawaii National Guard to help build critical infrastructure and “assist in planning alternate routes and assist in providing bypass routes if the need arises.”

“All the equipment needed to close the road where it was necessary, to put up a message board so we can notify everyone of the shutdowns in advance, and so we can free the Hamakua coast of all lane restrictions, that we have in this area,” said Ed Sniffen, associate director of highways for the state Department of Transportation.

Closure of the freeway known locally as Saddle Road. will mean more traffic in communities along the Hamakua Coast, along with tourists flocking to Hawaii Island to see the eruptions.

A shutdown would also have a major impact on thousands of commuters. An alternative route takes much longer.

The Mauna Loa erupting river is 4.5 miles off the main road on Hawaii’s Big Island. (Source: USGS/CNN)

Talmadge Magno of the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said the highway has become the “major transit” between the East and West Hawaiian Islands.

“So it’s very important,” he said.

Hon said it would not reach the highway for at least two days. But he added that it would likely take longer.

“It’s just a matter of timing, it’s not like it’s going to hit in two days, but that’s the fastest time it could cover the road right now,” Hon said.

Magno adds that if the main freeway closes, those wanting to get between Hilo and Kona will have to rely on coastal roads like Highway 19 and Highway 11, which will also increase safety,” he said.

Hawaii County is also creating a secure dedicated viewing area in a section within the Pohakuloa Training Area.

“There are portions of the Old Saddle Road route that the Daniel K. Inouye Highway does not follow,” Sniffen said. “So there is a remnant of the Old Saddle Road in the Pohakuloa training area that we didn’t follow. This part is still paved, it is still possible to drive on and there are areas where people could safely park.”

The move comes as spectators flood the freeway, increasing the risk of accidents. Just hours after Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth banned off-freeway parking, a car was hit while going off the shoulder onto the main road. Two people were treated with minor injuries.

$1,000 fine for illegally parked vehicles. County officials say police patrols and law enforcement are continuing along the freeway during the outbreak.

Officials are urging people to drive safely and stay alert, especially when driving in the dark.

Kim Rodrigues has commuted between Hilo and the Waikola area for 19 years. She said the alternative routes are not designed for the heavy traffic.

“We have to be patient,” she said.

Rodrigues wants the state to add temporary left-turn lanes, or passing lanes, on the shoulder of Highway 19 to prevent backups when Saddle Road is closed.

“It’s going to be quite an inconvenience, but it doesn’t mean our people will be cut off,” said Elena Cabatu, director of marketing at Hilo Medical Center.

The facility has 1,600 employees, and a handful of them commute from the West Side.

“We’re taking stock of our employees and where they live,” she said.

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Healthcare workers are essential, so they need to make the drive. Cabatu said they are helping those employees prepare for the extra commute time.

Officials from the island of Hawaii have had very tentative discussions about whether there’s a way to redirect the lava flow — something that’s been tried (with limited success) in other places.

Those talks weren’t fruitful, Magno said, without elaborating.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Ige also said it was probably impossible to divert the river.

“There is no physical or technological way to change the course of the lava,” Ige said.

“The power of Mother Nature and Madame Pele overwhelms anything we can do. So we will be monitoring and planning the east-west connection in case the DK highway should be flooded by lava.”

The state said closing the freeway if the lava reaches it could take about six hours. At this time, the highway remains open in both directions.

Meanwhile, at the Pohakuloa training ground, the Army said lava did not enter a barracks area and social media posts stating this were false.

They added that lava had only destroyed a fence in a remote area and precautions were being taken to protect personnel and equipment.

However, flows have already crossed a private road, disrupting access and power to a key global climate monitoring station. The State Department of Land and Natural Resources said lava also crossed the Old Kona Highway around 11 p.m. Tuesday. It is a dirt road that traverses the Mauna Loa Forest Reserve.

Meanwhile, officials continued to stress that the outbreak poses no threat to hillside communities.

Mauna Loa’s eruption began late Sunday after months of increased earthquake activity.

The 13,681-foot Mauna Loa volcano had been rumbling more in recent months, leading many to believe an eruption is imminent.

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