Hot, dry, windy recipe for busy season — fire chief

KAHULUI – While more brush fires were reported in Maui County last year, fewer acres burned – in part because of more aggressive response by firefighters and more caution by residents, fire officials said.

And with the busiest fire months approaching, officials are again reminding residents to be careful when discarding cigarettes, matches and other ignitable material.

“It’s been hot, dry and windy, which is the recipe for a busy fire season,” said Battalion Chief Allen Duarte, who serves as wildland coordinator for the Maui Fire Department.

Vegetation hasn’t grown back in the mountains above Maalaea that burned two summers ago, he said.

But in Lahaina and on Molokai, “fuels have filled in,” Duarte said. “They’re thick and looking ripe for some heavy burning,” he said.

Last year, firefighters responded to 272 brush fires that burned 580 acres, with the largest fire consuming about 25 acres near Stable Road in Paia. The number of fires was 18 percent higher than the 231 brush fires in 2011. But the number of acres that burned last year was 23 percent lower than the 753 acres blackened in 2011. The largest fire in 2011 was one covering 130 acres in Lahaina.

In 2010, there were 266 fires that burned 16,476 acres, including 9,000 acres in a Molokai fire. That was up from 195 fires that burned 3,425 acres in 2009, including a 550-acre fire in Wailea.

“It was dry and windy last summer, and we didn’t get hit very hard,” Duarte said. “It was unusual.”

Reasons for the decline the past couple of years include more awareness by residents who saw the destruction caused by brush fires in 2010, he said.

“People are being more careful after that busy summer two summers ago,” Duarte said. “The word is out, and people have seen the results of carelessness with fire.”

In addition, he said, “I think we’re doing a better job of being more aggressive and stopping small fires which could turn into big fires.”

All firefighters have been trained in fighting wildland fires, Duarte said, although training has been reduced recently because of economic setbacks.

A recent class focused on wildland-urban interface fires that occur when a wildland fire approaches an urban area, threatening homes and residents. “That’s a growing concern here on Maui, as people are more and more starting to build out into the rural areas,” Duarte said.

Such areas include Launiupoko and Olowalu, where homes have been built in dry, windy areas. Last year, a brush fire threatened homes on Cook Road in Kula, causing damage to some residences.

Fire task forces, including representatives from Maui County’s Public Works Department and Civil Defense Agency and the state Department of Forestry and Wildlife, have been established on Molokai and in West Maui, two major areas of concern, Duarte said.

The Molokai Fire Task Force, headed by Battalion Chief Travis Tancayo, has cut firebreaks that were used to fight fires on the island last summer, Duarte said.

“That’s helped tremendously,” he said. “There were several fires last summer that would have turned into something big.”

The West Maui Fire Task Force, headed by retired Battalion Chief James Kino, is working on identifying high-risk fire areas and access to them.

Kahului, Paia, Kula, Napili and Molokai fire stations are equipped with minitrucks, which have four-wheel-drive capability,and provide more accessibility for fire crews in areas where full-sized engines can’t go, Duarte said.

And this fire season, the Fire Department has a new tanker that went into operation a couple of days before a compost fire June 2 that shut down the Central Maui Landfill.

“It’s already paid dividends,” Duarte said. With the addition of the new tanker, the old 2002 tanker is being used as a backup so two tankers are stationed in Central Maui.

With Hazardous Materials Capt. Eric Otani operating the older tanker, both tankers were quickly activated to fight the landfill fire, arriving on scene within 15 minutes of the alarm, Duarte said.

“We got our money’s worth from it,” said engineer Carlton Long, a 22-year fire veteran, who operated the new tanker for the first time to fight the landfill fire.

Assistant Chief Derrick Arruda worked on specifications for the new tanker, named Waihualani, which has updated safety features including an anti-roll device and a backup camera. “It drives like a Cadillac,” Long said. “It’s very effective at brush fires.”

While brush fire season has been lighter the last couple of summers, firefighters are prepared for that to change, Long said.

“When it goes, it just goes,” he said. “With all the heavy rains, everything gets growing. When the winds are blowing, things are going to happen, without a doubt.”

In the past few weeks, firefighters have been called to smaller brush fires, including one that burned about 100 square feet along Mokulele Highway near the Maui Humane Society and a 2-acre fires along Holomua Road in Paia and in Lahaina.

“We’re starting to get some coming in,” Duarte said. “It’s still early, but usually by now we’ve had something bigger.”

The calls are expected to increase as the Fourth of July holiday nears, along with the busiest fire months of July, August and September, Duarte said.

He reminded residents to make sure campfires and barbecues are fully extinguished and to use care in discarding cigarette butts, matches and other ignitable materials.

“In general, just be careful and use common sense,” Duarte said. “Be aware of what your kids are doing with their idle time, especially over the Fourth of July holiday.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at