Would you risk your life to post a really great selfie to your Facebook feed? For some people, the answer is apparently yes. Emergency responders are struggling to deal with the worsening eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano as it forces evacuations and continues to destroy homes (and, famously, a Ford Mustang). But they have an added and unnecessary challenge--the large numbers of people who can't resist the urge to come see the lava for themselves, and then get as close to it as possible so they can snap the ultimate selfie.
"The fissures are deadly, very deadly," one Hawaiian official told People. The lava can explode or emit toxic gases very suddenly, especially when the lava comes in contact with seawater. It seems like common sense that you shouldn't go near the stuff, and you shouldn't turn your back on it so you can take a selfie. The lava is certainly spectacular, but there are safe places from which to view it. Unfortunately, the modern obsession with social media fame is combining with one-upmanship to drive people to make daredevil approaches to the lava, something they would likely never do if they took a minute to consider the risks.
Then there are those who are making--or attempting to make--a career out of playing chicken with an active volcano. Demian Barrios, a professional photographer, calls himself a "lava chaser" and the style of the narration that goes with the live streams he's posted to Facebook of new fissures launching lava bombs into the air should sound familiar to Storm Chasers fans. Barrios told Time that he's loved volcanoes since he was a kid and that Kilauea is a once-in-a-lifetime event because it's affected so many people. (Volcanic eruptions are common in Hawaii, but lava flowing through well-populated neighborhoods is rarer.)
Barrios has come in for some criticism on Facebook for going dangerously close to the lava, although at least he wears a gas mask, protecting himself from the noxious fumes that can kill you well before the lava reaches you. Others have defended him, saying that as an adult, he is free to risk his life if he so chooses. More disturbingly, according to Time, he has brought his four-year-old son on some of his lava chasing excursions. He says chasing lava isn't as dangerous as it seems if you know what you're doing, and that after chasing lava for 20 years, he knows when he needs to get away quickly and when he can safely get closer.
But just because you believe you know how to stay safe around lava doesn't necessarily mean you're not in danger. A Hawaii resident named Darryl Clinton confidently told CNN that he knew how to avoid the huge chunks of lava falling all around him, but then was hit in the leg with a large piece of flying lava while standing on his porch talking on his mobile phone. The lava chunk immediately shattered the bone in his leg. It will require multiple surgeries, but doctors expect Clinton to recover. At least he wasn't there just to watch and take a selfie--he was attempting to save his home, and a friend's home, by keeping them wet and using a fire extinguisher against the blaze.
He says he has no regrets. "Front row seats to every aspect of a lava flow you can imagine," he told CNN. "And then to be able to save a couple structures, at least help." But you have to wonder if he, or his loved ones, would still feel the same way if instead of having a broken leg, Clinton had wound up paralyzed or dead. Either could have easily happened if the lava had hit him just a foot or two higher.
The most disturbing instance of excessive risk in pursuit of great lava photos was undertaken by an unnamed man who posted a video from the inside of a house completely surrounded by advancing burning lava, which did not seem to frighten or disturb him in the slightest. "I'm on the second story and that lava is the same height as I am, same height as my feet, anyway, so it's a good 8 feet up," he says in the video. When a piece of lava explodes into a ball of flames that seems to lap against the outside of the building's window, he calls out cheerfully, "There she blows!" Then he pans around to show that the entire--wooden--building is surrounded by lava on all sides. "Not touching the building yet," he says calmly. Perhaps there was a helicopter waiting for him on the roof.
The video is indeed spectacular and, whoever he is, the man who shot it is probably delighted with all the attention it's getting. I just hope it was worth it, and that he's OK.