KALAPANA, Hawaii -- Hawaiians scattered sacred ti leaves atop rampaging lava flows disgorged by fiery Kilauea volcano, but the red-hot river of molten rock rumbled along its destructive path Saturday, consuming four more homes.
'Mother Nature is going to go where she wants, do what she wants,' said firefighter Richard Lau, on the fire lines for 31 straight hours. 'It's kind of a hopeless feeling. It's sad watching people's houses go down and you can't do anything about it.'
Tradition has it that surging lava flows won't cross a ti leaf barrier, but the effort fell short this time. Ancient Hawaiians used to offer Ti leaves, a symbol of good luck in the islands, as a way of trying to appease angry volcano gods.
As the lava flow progressed at about 40 feet per hour, it sparked fires in the surrounding brush. Occasional muffled explosions of methane gas ignited by the heat could be heard.
Four more homes in the path of the relentless flow were destroyed and a county Civil Defense official said he expected more to go up in flames.
Scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory flew over the disaster Saturday afternoon and reported two streams of lava broke away from the main flow along its 8-mile path. That slowed the front of flow to a virtual crawl, they said.
'It looks like a reprieve for now,' said Bruce Butts, a scientist at the observatory. 'It's barely moving now.'
The total number of homes lost in the Kalapana area on the southeast side of the island of Hawaii stood at 17.
'I'm afraid we're going to lose several more...,' Hawaii County Civil Defense Director Harry Kim said.
He allowed several residents to return to the area during the night for a last look, Kim said.
'These people's homes were just about to get engulfed so we permitted them to get a last look.'
'During the last two weeks, I think I've seen more emotion than I've seen in my whole life,' Kim said. 'For some of these people, the homes were vacation homes. But for others, they were everything they had.'
A spokesman at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said the flow rampaging through the Kalapana Gardens subdivision split into two lobes with each torching two houses.
One finger of lava which was pooling near a 40-foot bluff overlooking the coast was a cause for concern. An official said an overflow from the pool would funnel the lava along the bluff towards the old center of the village near a store and church.
'There's no way to tell whether they're going to be spared or not,' a Civil Defense spokesman said.
The second lobe was spreading slowly within the subdivision and threatening several other homes.
Mayor Dante Carpenter has declared the Kalapana area a disaster area and asked the state for a similar declaration, but a spokesman for Gov. John Waihee said the matter remained under consideration.
'Procedurally, the county must demonstrate that it has exhausted all its resources, and in turn, the deoment the state prepares must meet a certain set of criteria,' the spokesman said.
Volcanic activityin the earlier phases of the Kilauea eruption, which began Jan. 3, 1983, destoyed 16 homes.
The volcano, the world's most active, is 4,000 feet high on the island of Hawaii, 200 miles southeast of Honolulu.