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Lava flow spares Hawaiian shopping center just before Christmas

An handout aerial picture from Dec. 16 shows lava flow in an area reaching from Puu Oo to the distal flow front near the Pahoa Marketplace in Hawaii. (EPA/Fa Trusdell/ United States Geological Survey)
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Holiday shoppers and store owners at the Pahoa Marketplace on Hawaii’s Big Island had braced themselves for the lava from the Kilauea volcano. It was supposed to hit around Christmas, officials had anticipated.

Then came a Christmas miracle (or you could attribute it to the unpredictability of geological events): the lava flow stopped nearly 700 yards away from the shopping center, civil defense administrator Darryl Oliveira said Tuesday, and the front of the flow appears to have hardened, the Associated Press reported.

The flow from the Kilauea volcano began in June and the front remained stalled as of Tuesday, according to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

“I think the merchants are seeing some relief with this,” Oliveira said at a news conference, the AP reported. “Hopefully this is an indication of a change in the flow.”

A number of stores in the island’s biggest shopping center had anticipated evacuating its employees and already began the process of clearing out inventory. The nearby gas station had emptied its pumps and filled them with a mixture of water and firefighter foam, Big Island News reported.

Ace Hardware had planned to close Thursday evening, and employee Brandi McKee told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald that the store is giving its workers jobs at other locations. “It means a whole lot especially during the holidays,” she said.

Earlier this week, Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi invited President Obama to observe the lava flow on the Big Island, as the first family vacations on Oahu.

This particular flow is actually from a volcanic eruption that dates back to 1983. It still threatens the shopping center, as it’s not clear yet whether the flow has completely stopped or if it’s just temporarily stalled, Oliveira said. Additional breakouts from behind have been observed, the Volcano Observatory reported.

Oliveira said it’s possible that the breakout from behind could become the new lava flow front, as it’s happened in the past.

But given this particular flow headed toward the marketplace moved about 70 yards within 24 hours, Oliveira said it would take another 10 days for the lava to actually hit the marketplace, KITV reported. A week ago, the lava flowed at 300 yards per day, the Tribune-Herald reported.

And while they have that extra time, merchants are still unsure about what the future holds for them.

“I don’t want to leave Pahoa,” Jungle Love clothing store owner Becky Petersen told the Tribune-Herlad. “Unless the flow takes the building, I will not give it up.”