Fire enlisted for firefighting

LAUNIUPOKO – Maui firefighters were “fighting fire with fire” this week with controlled burns along Honoapiilani Highway as part of a certification process to be better prepared for emergencies, such as brush fires and other disasters.

The first members of Maui’s incident management team, which include firefighters and other emergency and private safety personnel, are expected to be certified at the end of the week, following the training that began Monday.

The diverse multiagency team is tasked with responding to emergencies, such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis. About 60 firefighters and other state, county and private company officials on Maui were looking to join the team.

On Wednesday, the certification focused on putting out a brush fire on land overlooking Launiupoko and Puamana beach parks – without water.

“We’re learning to fight fire with fire,” said Hanale Lindo, a commander of the Maui team. “A lot of people think that you can only fight fire with water, but we can actually use the grass, terrain and weather to help control and extinguish it.”

Since Monday morning, candidates for the Maui team have been practicing a “prescribed burn” technique that essentially involves clearing flammable materials surrounding a fire and lighting a back fire.

“This concept, if we get it right, we can use it throughout the county,” said Lindo, who also is a fire captain on Molokai.

David Thyne, assistant fire chief of support services, watched the demonstration from afar Wednesday afternoon and said that the idea for prescribed burns and back fires without using water came from his trip with six fellow Maui firefighters to southwest Oregon in August. During their trip, they shadowed and worked alongside Oregon firefighters as they battled a nearly 30,000-acre fire that cost more than $25 million to extinguish.

Among the methods Oregon firefighters used to combat the blaze was prescribed burns, due to narrow valleys and ridges that prevented them from watering the fire with an engine.

“Seven of the nine days we prepared for the burn and that kind of stuck with me,” Thyne said, adding that Maui has similar valleys but has not used this technique in the past. “Why put guys in dangerous situations that could potentially harm them when this tactic could potentially be safer?”

The department brought experienced firefighters from the Mainland, including Chris Hoff, to the island for the certification and exercise.

Hoff, who helped lead the weeklong exercise, is a retired fire chief from Central Oregon and serves as incident commander of a type 1 incident management team – the highest of the five-category system.

Whereas type 4 and 5 teams deal with city- or town-level incidents that may involve only one government agency, type 1 to 3 teams handle national or state level emergencies that involve multiple agencies.

Maui is looking to create a type 3 team, or a standing group of trained personnel that can react to major disasters, such as the 2009 fire on Molokai that burned 7,200 acres or the 2007 Launiupoko fire that scorched 2,600 acres and destroyed two residences.

“They essentially bring order to chaos,” Hoff said. “They have the expertise to handle” the logistics of food, equipment and other needs and costs.

“It’s a way to organize a complex incident,” he said.

Torrie Nohara, a trails and access specialist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, was in attendance. She said that she would get “freaked out” when thinking about Maui getting hit by a tsunami or other natural disaster in the absence of a formal team.

“I am so much more confident because these guys know what they’re doing,” she said after participating in the exercises and plan-making. “I trust that, with the team we’re building right now, it’s capable of dealing with any incident.”

As firefighters finished exercises Wednesday afternoon and prepared to evaluate their progress, Thyne said he was pleased with the building of a “foundation” for the team. Fifteen to 20 people could be certified as type 3 team members by the end of the week, he said.

“There are more than 350 police officers and 315 firefighters” in Maui County, Thyne said. “Who’s managing that? Who’s making the plan?

“That’s us.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at