January 16, 2020

Kilauea in the Year of the Dog

A professional photographer based on the Big Island of Hawaii, Melissa Schelling’80 planned to make photographs of dogs each day in 2018, the Year of the Dog. Then a volcano intervened.
  • The situation on the ground in Puna—namely deadly lava flows— shifted Melissa Schelling’s plans for a fall photography exhibit.
    Photo by Melissa Schelling’80

The end of our world started during the night of non-stop earthquakes. Two days later, lava erupted nearby and we evacuated immediately.

We knew the risks of living on a volcano, having followed Beloit classmate and volcanologist John Ewert’s USGS disaster team, which was on site in the Philippines during the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991. Yet we still bought nine acres of Hawaii in Lava Hazard Zone 1. We planted more than 700 trees, built a solar-powered house with rainwater catchment, and feasted on fruit from our tropical orchard. But knowing the risks doesn’t eliminate the trauma when reality hits.

Your brain explodes during evacuation; one half surges into hyper-drive while the other half stops, useless. You can look at 10 items you need, but only grab three. Every decision is short term. It’s, “Where can we spend the night?” Not, “Where can we stay for the next three months?”

During those three months, 24 fissures erupted, and more than 700 homes vanished. Lava obliterated coastlines, deleted roads, and vaporized Green Lake in a column of steam. Evacuees scrambled to rescue items from home, anxious about looters and squatters. Some residents didn’t leave. My neighbor stayed to extinguish fires ignited by lava bombs hitting the roof, until a lava bomb almost severed his leg.

We were all on high alert and exhausted from information overload. Civil Defense texted constant disaster updates. The FEMA disaster center shuffled us through Red Cross, the Small Business Association, and state agencies, all requiring minute details that are hard to remember even in normal times.

Melissa's new project juxtaposes before-and-after photographs with real-time warnings, work that ...Melissa's new project juxtaposes before-and-after photographs with real-time warnings, work that helped her and her dogs cope with the natural disaster.

Every day, I photographed the effects of evacuation on my dogs, partly to distract them during this surreal time, but also to focus my mind beyond the lava trauma. These photos combined with disaster updates document the whole experience.

I witnessed Fissure 17 up close as it devoured my neighbor’s home, and felt both exhilarated by standing near enough to taste sulfur dioxide and haunted by an unknown future. In the end we lost our house to a lava fire. After 22 good years there, we have no regrets.


Melissa Schelling, her husband, Dominic, and their dogs, Whiskey and Coco, have relocated to a safer spot on the island of Hawaii. In the fall of 2018, she exhibited her photographs at the Wailoa Center Fountain Gallery in Hilo.


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