WAILUKU - With the number of brush fire calls in less than seven months this year approaching 12-month totals for previous years, Mayor Alan Arakawa said that the Fire Department may need additional funding if brush fires continue at the same rate.
And as more county money is spent on firefighting efforts, less is available for other services such as improving parks and paving roads, Arakawa said.
"When we have idiots in this community that go around and start fires, they're burning the assets of our community," he said. "The more of these things we have to deal with, the harder it is to create the kind of community and quality of life we want."
Shown is the rugged terrain of an 87-acre brush fire that started July 13 in Kaupo. The fire, which started near the road, is believed to have been intentionally set with fireworks, according to the Fire Department.
Maui County photo
Fire Chief Jeff Murray asks residents to be cautious and to report suspicious activity in the aftermath of a brush fire, shown in a photo on the screen behind him, that blackened 87 acres in Kaupo.
The Maui News/LILA FUJIMOTO photo
Fire investigators found remains of fireworks known as “Ground Bloom Flowers” at the scene of the brush fire in Kaupo. It started near the road in the remote, windswept location.
Maui County photo
At a news conference Tuesday in the mayor's 9th-floor conference room, Arakawa and Fire Chief Jeff Murray called on residents to take precautions to prevent fires and to report suspicious activity.
Projected on screens behind Murray and Arakawa were photos from a brush fire that was declared extinguished Monday after blackening 87 acres in Kaupo.
Murray said fire investigators found remains of fireworks known as "Ground Bloom Flowers" at the scene of the brush fire, which was reported shortly after 3 p.m. July 13, starting near the road in the remote, windswept location.
Based on the time and location of the fire, it appeared to have been intentionally set, Murray said.
Over nine days, the cost to fight the fire was $82,000, Murray said, and involved 90 firefighters, including some with special wildland training who were called in on overtime. The Fire Department's Air One and other helicopters also were used in the firefighting effort.
The expense included $5,000 for diesel fuel for firetrucks - including some from Lahaina - to reach the fire site, Murray said.
"The terrain and the wind and the water resources hampered our operation, and that's why it ran so long," Murray said. "We had areas that flared up over the nine-day period."
Limited access to the area also was a factor, Murray said. In some areas. the fire burned underground for days, "similar to an imu," Murray said.
"We had our firefighters walking the perimeter to make sure it was cold," he said.
While no injuries were reported in the Kaupo fire, "these types of fires can cause devastation dependent on the area they are in," Murray said.
"Luckily, this was in an isolated area, but it could have impacted many homes," Murray said.
He said firefighters had prepared for the possibility that more than 30 homes in the Kahikinui Hawaiian homestead area could have been affected by the fire.
"In the whole scheme of things, $82,000 doesn't seem like a lot," Murray said. "But it does impact our budget, as we just started a new fiscal year."
Already, Murray estimated that the department has expended 13 percent of its budget for the year that began July 1.
Arakawa said the County Council cut back the Fire Department's budget, hoping there wouldn't be many fires this year.
"Sometimes that projection is not realistic," Arakawa said. "We cannot underfund the Fire Department and emergency response."
As of Tuesday morning, the Fire Department had responded to 221 brush fire calls this year. The number amounts to 81 percent of the 272 brush fire calls last year. There were 231 brush fire calls in 2011 and 266 in 2010.
The fires have occurred throughout the island in areas, including Paia, Wailuku and Kahului, Lahaina, Huelo and Kailua, Murray said.
If the current trend continues, "we're on our way to a terrible season," he said.
"We're just asking people to be fire safe and, if you notice people that are doing things out of the ordinary, to please report it," Murray said.
Arakawa said people can call 911 in an emergency or call the Mayor's Office or Fire Department if they have information about any of the suspicious fires.
"Help us catch these people starting these fires," Arakawa said. "It's not funny. It can take people's homes, lives, property.
"You've got to be almost crazy to think this is a fun thing to do. So people that are doing this aren't thinking straight."
Murray estimated that at least 25 percent of brush fires are purposely set, although the official cause of some fires may be undetermined "because we cannot find the evidence."
"But if you look at all possibilities, that's the only possibility," Murray said.
He said he didn't know of any similarities between the Kaupo fire and other suspicious fires this year, including a rash of unscheduled cane fires that burned 42.5 acres and caused an estimated $182,500 in losses to Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.'s sugar crop.
Police declined comment Tuesday except to say that investigation of the fires is continuing.
So far, Murray said the county's investment in fire equipment and training has paid off, with firefighters arriving in time to keep small fires from spreading and causing more damage.
But, depending on the factors, a fire can quickly get out of control, Murray said.
Referring to the Arizona wildfire that killed 19 firefighters last month, Murray said, "We don't want to have an Arizona here on Maui."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.