New lava viewing route through Pōhakuloa Training Area to help with traffic and safety
December 1, 2022, 2:23 PM HST
* Updated December 1, 8:56 PM
With people flocking by the thousands nightly to see the eruption on Mauna Loa’s northeast flank, the congestion on Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road, has gotten so bad and dangerous that Hawai‘i County Civil Defense has developed a traffic hazard mitigation route.
The new route was worked out with the state and Pōhakuloa Training Area and announced Thursday morning.
The entry to the 4.5-mile, one-way route through Pōhakuloa Training Area land is directly across from Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area, with its exit at a junction point on the highway just before the Pu‘u Huluhulu volcanic cinder cone near the Maunakea Access Road.
“People will travel one way on that route to view the lava flows, and that will open up later today, hopefully relieving the traffic congestion and relieving some of the safety issues and concerns that we have,” Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno said during a press conference Thursday morning.
Lava viewing will be constrained to the route, which provides clear, visual access to the mountain and the ongoing lava flows. Parking also will be allowed on the side of the road; however, only on the right side and no vehicle can remain in the area for more than 90 minutes.
“People will be able to travel on that road, park; there will be assistance out there, there will be security out there to make sure they don’t leave the roadways,” Mango said. “You have to remember you are on Pōhakuloa Training Area property. They have training ranges and so forth; it’s not really a place people want to go off the roadway.”
Signage, barricades and safety officers will be on the scene. The route is specifically for passenger vehicles; commercial vehicles are prohibited.
“We are humbled to have come together with our state and federal partners to find a potential solution to the ongoing safety concerns along Saddle Road,” said Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth in a press release. “Our teams have worked tirelessly to keep the community safe through this eruption, and through the creation of the traffic hazard mitigation route, we believe that there will be significantly less risk to our community.”
Mayor Roth on Wednesday issued a second emergency rule relating to the highway and the ongoing eruption that prohibits parking and traversing and walking on Saddle Road and its shoulders between the 16-mile marker and Highway 190, also known as Hawai‘i Belt Road. The mayor issued his first emergency rule Tuesday, prohibiting parking and traversing and walking on the highway and its shoulders between the 16- and 31-mile markers.
“Saddle Road presents several unsafe conditions for pedestrians and vehicles along the shoulders, including rain, fog and other factors that can reduce visibility for oncoming traffic — especially at night,” Roth said in a press release announcing his first emergency rule. “Therefore, we ask that all who seek to view the eruption do so in areas deemed safe and in accordance with the law.”
Police patrols and enforcement will continue along Daniel K. Inouye Highway, the main thoroughfare between the east and west sides of the island, throughout the eruption. Anyone parking or walking along the roadway between mile markers 16 and 31 could face a $1,000 fine.
Mayor Roth’s office reported Wednesday that the Hawai‘i Fire Department responded at 9:05 p.m. Tuesday after a car was struck near the 44-mile marker on the highway. Six patients were involved, with two needing medical transport for minor injuries. It was reported to medics that those injured were idled in a vehicle on the highway’s shoulder that was struck as it attempted to pull back onto the main roadway.
Pōhakuloa Training Area Fire and Emergency Services has responded to three serious vehicle accidents on Saddle Road since the eruption began as part of a mutual aid agreement with the County.
“We understand that it is unpopular for us to limit parking along the roadway, but, unfortunately, it’s necessary to keep each other safe,” Mayor Roth said in a press release Wednesday, adding its the County’s main priority is always the health and safety of the community.
The Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area, including the lower and upper bathrooms, will remain open 24 hours a day until further notice for people to view the flows, with security guards at the park nightly from 6:15 p.m. to 6:15 a.m.
Pōhakuloa Training Area public information officer Amy Phillips reiterated during Wednesday’s press conference the importance of the public not to wander off the new lava viewing route.
“Although we are partnering with the County, [U.S. Geological Survey] and all the other agencies to open that small portion of Old Saddle Road for public viewing, the rest of the installation is not open,” Phillips said, adding that people already have been trying to come onto the restricted base to view the lava flows.
She also asked that the public refrain from parking around the training area’s main gate.
“We still are operating business as usual,” Phillips said.
The Hawai’i County Civil Defense also recommended people find a different route around the island if they need to get from one side of the island to the other for other reasons.
On Wednesday night, traffic headed east on Daniel K. Inouye Highway was bumper-to-bumper by about 6 p.m. near Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area.
A flashing sign on the road informed motorists that no parking was allowed, warning of $1,000 fines, but less than 50 yards away hundreds of cars were parked on both sides of the highway, lined up to see Mauna Loa erupting in the distance.
One of the road’s south shoulders was inundated with cars trying to find places to park. There were uniformed officers attempting to manage the crowds, but one admitted that enforcing the no parking rule was undoable by that point.
“One car parked, and then another, and then it was a free for all,” the officer said. “We just became overwhelmed.”
Thousands of vehicles were coming from the east and west to try to find a good vantage point to see the bright red glow of the lava against the dark night sky. By 9 p.m., the traffic was much worse. Cars were bumper-to-bumper again, this time heading in many directions. The traffic going eastbound on Saddle Road was backed up for at least 7 miles.
Headlights and taillights could be seen snaking up Maunakea and all along Daniel K. Inouye Highway. It appeared that law enforcement was trying to clear out some who were parked illegally, but the people and vehicles just kept coming.
There was at least one vehicle accident Wednesday night, with a car colliding into the back of another in the westbound lane of Saddle Road, causing even more of a backup.
“There was 10,000+ last night,” said a commenter on a recent Big Island Now story Tuesday about the attraction of the bright red glow of the lava flows. “Wayyyy more then Monday.”
“It’s an awesome sight to behold and one not to be missed,” said Dru808, who was commenting on the same story. “But it’s not an excuse to abandon every last ounce of common sense. Lolo drivers were braking suddenly to pull off to the side of the road, and worse, doing U-turns in the middle of the highway, one of which caused a really bad accident, sending a car down an embankment.”
For the latest information from Hawai‘i County Civil Defense, click here.
News reporter Cammy Clark contributed to this story.