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Chicago native, now documentary filmmaker, fled home as Hawaii volcano erupted

Leilani Estates neighborhood on Hawaii's Big Island

Smoke and volcanic gases rise as lava cools on Friday in the Leilani Estates neighborhood in the aftermath of eruptions and lava flows from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island. The U.S. Geological Survey said a recent lowering of the lava lake at the volcano's Halemaumau crater "has raised the potential for explosive eruptions" at the volcano. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mick Kalber has spent more than 35 years recording Hawaiian volcanic eruptions.

While the documentary filmmaker has spent countless hours flying — in a helicopter with no doors — over 2,000-degree molten-lava flows to record video, the latest eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has been different. This time, Kalber’s own home is threatened.

On May 6, the first of what as of Sunday was nearly 20 fissures opened on Kalber’s street in the Leilani Estates subdivision. Red-hot lava soon shot up through these cracks — with some lava fountains reaching more than 200 feet. Very quickly, the homes of more than 1,500 residents (including Kalber and his wife, Ann) were at risk.

They were forced to evacuate — but Kalber always knew he’d be going back.

Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, Hawaii

Toxic gases rise from cracks in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, Hawaii, on Friday. Lava from the Kilauea volcano has destroyed at least 36 structures, including 26 homes. | Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

It’s something Kalber, the son of late Chicago TV anchor Floyd Kalber, learned from his father’s commitment to covering the news.

“He would understand that I have been out here doing this for 35 years. I am not going to take off and go back to California, or even Chicago. This is my home. I love it,” Kalber said by phone earlier last week as he drove back to his house for the first time since evacuating.

As volcanic activity slowed a little, Hawaii County officials began allowing evacuated residents to return for brief visits.

“It felt so good to be back home, and it made us both cry,” Kalber said, referring to himself and his wife. His house, he added, was unscathed; aside from a few wilted herbs, “nothing much has changed.”

Mick Kalber

Mick Kalber worked as a news photographer in Omaha and Denver before moving to Hawaii. He started a documentary series, VolcanoScapes. A few years later, he started his own award-winning documentary series VolcanoScapes. His documentaries have aired around the world and are sold in stores throughout the state. | Peter von Buol

The danger, however, has not passed.

One lava flow came within 200 yards of the back of his property; it was parallel to their street and downhill from them, “so much as a threat as it sounds. That’s not to say the situation is not critical. The flow is very dynamic and could break out anywhere.”

For now, he added, not knowing what’s next is the hard part.

“We can’t move forward, and we can’t move backward. One day we’re encouraged, and the next we’re depressed. It’s a real roller-coaster of emotions.”

In all, 36 structures have been destroyed — 26 of those were homes. And now, scientists are warning that an explosive eruption may occur at the summit crater within weeks.

A lava-covered road in the Leilani Estates subdivision near Pahoa, Hawaii, on Friday. | Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

“We might have to get out quickly. We just have to see what happens. … There are cracks appearing here and there,” said Kalber, who also had a career as a TV news photographer before moving to Hawaii.

“You have to be careful. You have to be aware. We might have to get in and get out. Sometimes the officials just shut it down,” he added. “The rain has a tendency to make the situation worse. It is possible that we’ll drive there, and then have to turn back.”

Despite the recent devastation, Kalber said friends and neighbors have, without hesitation, helped one another cope.

“The community spirit here in Puna has been amazing. There is a lot of compassion here. It is a real special place.”

Weather permitting, Kalber will continue his daily flights over the volcano. His aerial footage of the current outbreak has been widely distributed. In addition, photographs taken by Kalber’s flying partner, Bruce Omori, have appeared on national and international publications.

“It’s threatening my home, but it doesn’t take away my love for Pele,” Kalber said, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess. “This is a special place. It is part of the deal. It’s part of living here. You can’t just live in a dynamic environment without the repercussions thereof.”

Mick Kalber in a helicopter filming a volcano

After a career in TV news, Mick Kalber decided to move to Hawaii in 1984; he’s been filming volcanoes ever since. | Peter von Buol