Day 6

Lava chaser says Kilauea is a 'double-edged sword' of danger and beauty

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano is experiencing its most explosive eruptions in nearly a century. Demian Barrios is running towards it.

Demian Barrios has waited 20 years to get this close to something this big

Demian Barrios is a lava chaser and photographer. (Demian Barrios @dbphotogallery)
Listen6:53

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano has destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of evacuations since it began erupting on May 3. The eruptions are the most explosive in a century.

But while Hawaiian officials instruct residents to steer clear of lava flows, Demian Barrios runs toward them. 

Barrios has 20 years of experience tracking volcanoes and documenting eruptions. 

Lately, he's been recording videos of Kilauea's eruptions and posting them on social media.

He tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the experience.

You've been doing this for a long time. How has this week been different?

This is the first time I've actually been able to witness a fissure eruption. Most of the previous lava that we've seen here has either been in the lake up at Halema'uma'u or Pu'u O'o Vent. And the majority of the lava flows we have here are pahoehoe and aa flows that basically just flow downhill from the vent.

The aa flow is the very jagged, crumbly rock that basically looks like big chunks of rock that sort of crumble together.

And then we have the more common, which is the pahoehoe flow, which is that long, ropey, undulating, billowy, slow moving lava.

Lava erupts from a fissure during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters)

We're talking about seismic activity and molten rock. How do you know that you're not putting yourself in grave danger?

Obviously there is a certain amount of risk.

Cracks have basically turned into erupting fissures. They've all been happening along a very straight rift line. Once a crack starts opening up and it's on this line, we pretty much know it's only a matter of time before it does develop into an erupting fissure.

Obviously, once the fissures do start erupting, it's very evident where you can and cannot approach the area because there's been a lot of fountaining lava and rocks being shot up into the air.

Being this close to these fissures must engage all of your senses. What are the things that you notice when you're looking into the fissures in Kilauea?

You can feel the tremors in the ground. You can feel the blast in your chest.

Large rocks have been ejected out of there, often still molten hot, so you see these red pieces of lava flying out and they slowly cool through the air.

At nighttime and during the morning hours it's been quite a spectacular show to see these fountains and I know people from all around the island have been pretty impressed by that.

It's a double-edged sword. It's been a tragic thing, it's been scary. You know a lot of people have been terrorized. They've been evacuated and moved out of their homes or lost their homes. But at the same time it's a very impressive force and it is the same force that created these islands.

Lava chaser and photographer Demian Barrios captures footage of the explosive eruption of Kilauea. (Demian Barrios @dbphotogallery) 0:21

What has been the most dangerous situation that you found yourself in?

That was a few years ago down near Pulama Pali, which is one of the slopes down here.

The lava was coming down the hill and I was out there in the morning and there were some underground lava tubes. I happened to step on a very weak part of that and it actually collapsed underneath me.

I fell in a crack that was maybe about waist deep. There was red hot lava on the inside of it. I jumped out of this crack like a cat in a bucket of water. Obviously it was very hot. I did get a couple scrapes on my leg and tear my pants.

I took my tripod down with me and kind of banged that on the side of the crack and my camera lens fell off and landed in this hole with the red hot lava. Within less than a second of it landing on there, it just completely was engulfed in flames and it just burned before my eyes and within a few minutes it was just a pile of ash.

Lava erupts from a Kilauea volcano fissure on May 17, 2018 in Kapoho, Hawaii.(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

You posted a video this week of your 4-year-old son saying that he's worried that you're a lava chaser and that the lava is chasing you. How easy is it for you to tell him that you're doing something dangerous?

I realize that he has had his concerns and his mom here at home has also been worried. I'm trying to show him through a positive side and being supportive and being with him here that everything is OK. I just let him know that I'm always safe and that coming home is always on my mind and he's really important to me. And that really makes him feel secure.

You have said that lava chasing is a self-reflective experience. What do you think about when you're watching Kilauea?

It really makes you present. It strips your mind from anything that's inconsequential. It really makes you dig down deep in life and think about all the ways we're connected and all these things that can affect us.

Lava shoots into the night sky from active fissures on the lower east rift of the Kilauea volcano, near Pahoa, Hawaii. (Caleb Jones/Associated Press)

Interview edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Demian Barrios, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.