Tuesday, January 23, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Visitors cautioned on volcano safety

Advertiser Staff

VOLCANO, Hawaii — Let’s face it. Rangers and scientists agree: watching eruptions can be a lot of fun.

It also can be deadly.

Both Hawaii Volcanoes National park and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory recently have issued statements on how to reduce risk and avoid death.

"Don’t let it be the last experience of your lifetime," warns "Volcano Watch," the weekly advisory and update from scientists at the observatory.

The "do and don’t" list is fairly short. Most of the advice is sensible, such as not wearing shorts or slippers in a hostile environment.

Hats, sunscreen and water for hikers may seem reasonable, but some ignore all three.

After three deaths last year, the two federal agencies are anxious to warn visitors and residents to prevent life-threatening situations.

The observatory states the obvious, such as having a flashlight at dark or avoiding being trapped between two flows.

"The heat can sneak up on you. If you hear a quick sizzling sound you’ve probably lost some hair," said Don Swanson, scientist in charge at the observatory.

For vacationers who leave common sense at home, there is now a last-chance shop, a tiny retail area the National Park Service has allowed the concessionaire at Volcano House to open at the end of the Chain of Craters Road. Inside are necessities including skin lotion, bottled water and small first-aid kits. Customers pay a stiff surcharge for arriving unprepared.

Mardie Lane of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has circulated a two-page handout that lists options and recommendations for eruption visits. They focus on hiking in safely — as long as one is fit to do so.

The handout also spells out the step-back distances from potentially devastating steam explosions, oceanside bench collapses — when cooling slabs of lava suddenly crack and drop into the ocean — and methane gas explosions near forested areas.

Some Big Island hotels and bed-and-breakfast operations have posted the national park’s "Danger ... Be Aware" for their guests.

"We do not encourage the inexperienced to go down there," said Barbara Andersen, who runs the family’s Shipman House bed and breakfast in Hilo.

Andersen offers a dozen or so newspaper stories about deadly incidents to try to dissuade travelers from venturing out on their own.

No one wants to be harmed, said Lane. The ranger, a former nurse, has dealt with serious injuries and deaths resulting too often from a lack of awareness.

As Hawaii County police often have said, tourists do things on the Big Island they would never consider trying at home.

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