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Volcano threatens Hawaii homes
01:28 - Source: CNN

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NEW: There will be an "opportunity to stay" as long as it is safe to do so, official says

Up to 12 homes and businesses could be evacuated soon, an official says

Lava advancing on Pahoa, a community of about 950 people on Hawaii's Big Island

Kilauea Volcano lava flow started June 27 and has covered 13 miles

Pahoa, Hawaii CNN  — 

With a natural disaster playing out in slow motion as lava from Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island inches towards homes and businesses in Pahoa, officials are preparing to begin evacuations.

The 2,000-degree river of molten rock is advancing on up to 12 homes and businesses, Darryl Oliviera, director of the Hawaii County Civil Defense, told reporters on Tuesday.

“The last couple of days we’ve been going door-to-door, working with residents in the area, preparing them for an evacuation, and it’s likely tonight we will begin some of those evacuations based on the conditions we are seeing,” he said.

“For the most part, the residents have been preparing for this.”

The evacuations, if they occur, would be among the first to take place since the slow-moving lava flow began moving towards Pahoa in June, when a volcanic crater vented and released the river of liquid rock.

“Our goal is to work with the residents and business owners, as the lava flow goes through their area,” Oliviera said. “There will be an opportunity for them to stay on site as long as it’s safe to do so.”

Lava chest high in some places

The dark ooze has swallowed up fences, flowed over a cemetery and neared major roads. On Tuesday morning, it set a wooden garden shed ablaze.

In some places in this community of about 950 residents, the lava is chest high.

“Everybody, including myself, is quite nervous,” Rod Macland told CNN affiliate KITV-TV. “We don’t know. We can’t see the future. The flow does what the flow does.”

By Tuesday morning, the lava was about 200 yards from the closest home and moving in a northeast direction. It was flowing 10 yards per hour, Darryl Oliveira of Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said.

Hawaii officials haven’t issued a mandatory evacuation yet. But many residents in the community have already chosen to leave on their own.

“Most people have vacated,” Hawaii County Civil Defense worker Francesca Martin-Howe told CNN affiliate KHON-TV. “They have moved out of their homes. There’s only a few people left.”

Alii Hauanio has started packing his things, including his parents’ memorabilia, CNN affiliate KHNL reported. His mom and dad lost their dream Kalapana beach home to lava flow in 1991, and Hauanio never thought he’d see his home meet the same fate, he told the station.

He hopes to watch the lava pass through, if it does.

“To see it, in actuality, I think it might bring closure to know that it’s done and turn that page, and we’re starting another chapter,” Hauanio told KHNL.

Oliveira said authorities weren’t going to try to divert the flow.

“No matter how you would turn it, you would direct it toward someone’s property,” he said.

There are about 40 to 50 homes in the first group of residences that are being threatened.

Taking precautions

The lava flow is expected to displace 900 schoolchildren in the area. Residents who don’t expect their homes to be destroyed worry about being cut off.

“A lot of us are loading up on gas, getting generators in case the energy goes out,” Mike Hale told CNN. “And we’re checking to make sure the Internet stays up.”

The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency has rebuilt two gravel roads to give residents escape routes from the lava flow. Power company crews are installing 70-foot-tall poles with heat resistant protection to raise cables higher off the roads.

Kristen Okinaka, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Electric Light Company, said there were no outages due to the lava flow.

“If for some reason someone can’t get to our clinic, we will be there with the mobile unit,” said Harold Wallace, CEO of Bay Clinic. “There’s going to be people who need prescriptions and more.”

Smoke a problem

The smoke is a problem for residents, especially those with respiratory conditions.

“It’s burning through thick brush, fern,” Tim Orr, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist, told CNN affiliate KHNL-TV. “A lot of smoke (is) coming off the front, a lot of cracking noises, methane explosions are going on. So it’s a noisy situation out there just from all the burning vegetation.”

Some evacuated homes are being targeted by looters, a business owner said.

“Crime is starting to pick up because a lot of people abandoned their houses. Two of my brother-in-laws’ houses got ripped off,” said Matt Purvis, owner of the Tin Shack Bakery, on Monday.

But the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said it has received no reports of looting at evacuated houses or businesses.

‘Not going to happen’

Billy Kenoi, the Big Island mayor, said residents must work together.

“As it gets closer, the key is communication with the community, keeping people informed and everybody continue to work around the clock really hard just to minimize as much as possible the impact on the people of Pahoa,” he told KHNL.

But many residents are rolling with the punches.

The lava flow is not exactly a surprise, since it started June 27 and has advanced about 13 miles since then. Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

“I think it’s going to be a little intense at first, a little crazy,” resident Geri Tolchin told KITV. “I think people will adjust. Everybody knows what’s happening.”

Macland said people must plan to rebuild.

“Everybody would wish this lava flow to stop,” he told KITV, “but it’s not going to happen,”

CNN’s Martin Savidge reported from Pahoa, Paul Vercammen from Los Angeles and Ralph Ellis from Atlanta. CNN’s Michael Pearson and Steve Almasy also contributed to this report.