By Malia Mattoch McManus

HONOLULU (Reuters) - State scientists and officials are warning some residents of Hawaii's Big Island that their homes could be jeopardized by a lava flow from Kilauea Volcano that is moving through a forest preserve toward their neighborhood.

A U.S. Geological Survey scientist said that while the lava flow did not pose an imminent threat to residents of the Kaohe Homesteads of the island's Puna area, it was less than 2 miles (3 km) away and appeared to be advancing.

"We are observing steam plumes," said Jim Kauahikaua, Scientist-in-Charge at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

The Hawaii Volcano Observatory and Hawaii County Civil Defense are holding meetings throughout the week to update residents on the potential threat, and the county was conducting daily flights over the area to assess the danger. 

"It's very difficult to forecast what direction it could take," said Darryl Oliveira, Director of Hawaii County's Civil Defense, noting the flow has averaged a rate of travel of 200 to 300 feet (60 to 90 meters) a day.

If the flow progresses toward Kaohe, officials say it is hard to gauge when it could reach homes, and Kauahikaua noted the flow was "speeding up then slowing down."

"It could be weeks or months depending on its range," he said. "Lava is flowing on the surface as well as in cracks in the ground which are covered with vegetation so we can't see everything. But we're observing a lot of steam."

Kilauea's current eruption began in 1983, and the fresh activity stems from a June 27 flow from Kilauea's Pu'u O'o vent. Kauahikaua said the flow was currently moving through very wet forest preserve, which was smoldering around the lava flow. The area has not seen any incidents of forest fire.Oliveira could not give a precise number for how many residents live at Kaohe, but said it was estimated at roughly 30 to 50 households although some people may be living off the grid or unaccounted for in the area.

The last time a Hawaii home was destroyed by lava was in 2012 at the Royal Gardens Subdivision in Kalapana, Oliveira said. 


(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)