Firefighters appear to have gotten the upper hand on a more than 40,000-acre wildland fire in South Kohala deemed the largest in Hawaii Island history.
Measured at over 62.5 square miles, the fire as of press-time Monday had scorched an area nearly the size of the island of Niihau, surpassing Hawaii Island’s largest recorded wildland fire in the late 1990s by more than 7,000 acres. It also grew beyond the size of the most recent brush fire to prompt an evacuation of Waikoloa Village in 2005 when a 25,000-acre blaze came within yards of homes.
“This is the largest fire we’ve had on this island, as far as I know, in history,” said Hawaii Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd. “40,000 acres burned; the last one was 33,000 acres in the Waikoloa region 20-plus years ago.”
Mayor Mitch Roth almost confirmed the fire being the largest on the island to date.
“With the drought conditions that we’ve had, it is of concern. You see something like this where you’re putting thousands of homes in danger, it’s very concerning,” he said.
The blaze, spanning from Mana Road and Puukapu in Waimea to Waikii Ranch and down to within a few miles of Waikoloa Village, was 50% contained as of Monday evening, Todd said. A total of two homes in the Department of Hawaiian Homelands Puukapu Subdivision in Waimea were lost in the fire that broke out at 11 a.m. Friday.
“I would hesitate to say we’ve got it under control because there’s still high winds and all it takes a couple embers to fly up and jump the line and the fronts could be running again,” Todd said Monday evening. “The battle continues. However, we feel pretty confident that we’ve gotten ahead of it and that we’re going in the right direction.”
The chief said the department was hoping to have the fire contained overnight and to have resources demobilized within the next couple of days.
“I can’t guarantee anything, obviously, because all it takes is one break out that runs and we’re back to square one,” Todd said, “but, so far, all signs are pointing toward optimistic and I’m looking to hopefully for some good results tonight from my guys in terms of how much ‘dozer lines we’ve cut and the likelihood of us maybe being to be able say tomorrow, ‘we’ve got this and we’re going to be wrapping it up.’”
National Weather Service Senior Hydrologist Kevin Kodama said forecasters were not expecting any significant rainfall to assist firefighters in the near future for the South Kohala area. Honolulu-based meteorologists said trade winds were forecast to decrease, with little chance of reprieve for Kona areas dealing with the smoke from the fire.
“There’s not much of a chance of anything significant. This is why we’re in the spot we’re in,” he said.
On Monday, firefighters continued to battle the blaze, holding it at its front enough to reopen major thoroughfares later in the afternoon.
Highway 190, also known as Mamalahoa Highway, closed Saturday, reopened Monday evening between Ala Ohia and Waikoloa roads. Later both lanes of the Old Saddle Road from its junction at Highway 190 to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway were reopened. Waikoloa Road was also reopened to motorists in both directions from above the village to Highway 190.
Parker Ranch said Monday over 32,000 acres of the historic privately owned ranch were burned in the fire, adding its employees also worked to battle the flames and protect animals.
“The quick action of our Parker Ranch cowboys resulted in thousands of animals saved from the path of this raging fire — estimated to be 2,000 to 3,000 saved from those burning pastures,” the ranch said in a statement Monday “It appears some animals were lost to this fire as the torrent of winds pushed the fire faster than resources could move to confront it. However, we believe the numbers of animals killed by the fire is less than 100. We will take inventory and determine the actual number lost as soon as possible.”
The ranch is also assessing damage to infrastructure and assessing potential impacts operations.
“Mahalo to all of those people who worked together to mitigate the destruction that this fire could have caused. Without their help, the losses could have been potentially much greater, including the possible loss of many human lives and property,” the statement provided by Parker Ranch CEO and President Dutch Kuyper read. “We are blessed to live in this community and have friends to help in such a time with such a violent force of nature.”
At the height of the blaze — around noon Sunday as flames moved toward Waikoloa Village after crossing the “line,” or Highway 190 — a shot had to be called, Todd said, noting it would take about four hours to evacuate more than 7,000 residents of Waikoloa Village.
“The situation, in the worse case scenario was there was potential for fire in the village and cutting off retreat action, so to be on the safe side because we knew it would take four or five hours to evacuate, we decided to pull the trigger on that,” Todd said.
With the number of homes threatened in the village area, Todd said resources were ramped up to “stop and contain” the fire’s advance. At the fire’s height 140 personnel — including the state’s only volunteer firefighters, county, state and federal assets — were working the blaze, assisted by as many as eight county, U.S. Army and private helicopters providing water drops.
Todd noted he didn’t remember any fire in his 16-year-plus history with the department of any fire requiring as much resources.
“Thanks to the effort of all the partners we had on scene, from DOFAW (the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife), National Park Service, Pohakuloa Training Area and others, they were able to restrict the fire from escaping and crossing ‘dozer lines,” he said, noting the burn area was primarily north of Waikoloa Road. Hawaii County officials said Sunday the flames came as close as 2.5 miles of Waikoloa Village.
“They basically captured everything inside there,” Todd said.
The chief did address “some discontent within the community” over two homes burned in Puukapu.
“It’s very, very hard for us to do much with the houses very well-spaced apart, as opposed to being denser and there isn’t a water infrastructure system for us to be able to pull water,” Todd said explaining it takes upward of 45 minutes for a 200-gallon tanker to reach a fire hydrant, refill and return to the remote area to resume operations. “Forty-five minutes is a lifetime when firefighting is concerned.”
However, he noted the donation of now three large water tankers by the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation played a critical role in saving other homes.
“That made a huge difference. We did lose two structures, but we could have lost a lot more. Those tankers are a force-multiplier because of their ability to bring in lots of water to places that are hard to access,” Todd said, explaining most fire trucks do not have off-road capabilities.
“When you have big fire you need big water — you gotta bring it if you’re going to put it out,” he said.
On Monday, six helicopters, including county, federal and private aircraft, accommodated by 17 bulldozers and ground assets continued to battle the island’s largest fire in history.
“This is a team effort and the actions of all of the first responders on the front lines is courageous and commendable,” Lt. Col. Kevin E. Cronin, commander of Pohakuloa Training Area, said Monday as Army resources continued to assist in quashing the fire.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation as rumors swirl on social media.
“I haven’t had time to track it down and verify but I heard it was a pipe cutting operation and a spark set 0ff the fire; but I don’t have confirmation on that at this time,” Todd said Monday.
One injury was suffered in battling the flames, he said. A firefighter was transported for treatment for a “heat stress issue” amid the blaze. Another report of a civilian affected resulted in a refusal of treatment.
“Right now, it’s just one injury,” Todd said. Hawaii County Spokesman Cyrus Johnasen confirmed Sunday no deaths related to the fire.
The fire chief also took the time Monday to thank the many members of the community who brought food and supplies for firefighters working the blaze.
“The Hawaii Fire Department and the County of Hawaii just really want to thank our many partners within the community, organizations, and other governmental entities that really pitched in to make this work. While we’re not entirely out of the tunnel yet, without all the support and help of the guys like PTA and DOFAW and Parks and Recreation and HPD, it wouldn’t even be possible to even try to stop this.
“It was that critical support that made the difference,” Todd c0ntinued.
Hawaii County advises anyone affected by the fire to immediately fill out a Public Damage Assessment Form at https://bit.ly/3rWReW7.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.