Chief: ‘Biggest . . . most risky fire’ of career
Lahaina blaze was tough to contain
LAHAINA — Threatened by 30-foot fire swirls, four firefighters fought to save the homeless shelter and affordable housing complex in Lahaina.
Along Mill Street, firefighters jumped over fences to battle flames that had already spread to cars and backyards.
And at Lahainaluna High School, crews that included several alumni put their lives on the line to protect their alma mater.
“This is the biggest, most significant, most risky fire in all of our careers,” Lahaina Battalion Chief Amos Lono-kailua-Hewett said Monday, after a physically and emotionally taxing weekend spent battling three different brush fires from Maalaea to Kaanapali.
At 9:45 p.m. Thursday, a fire broke out on the mountain ridge facing the intersection of North Kihei Road and Honoapiilani Highway in Maalaea. Located over a mile up the hillside, the fire was inaccessible to crews, who decided to monitor the fire and to address it at daylight.
Just three hours later, at 12:45 a.m. Friday, a second fire was reported at Kauaula Valley and Punakea Loop. Lonokailua-Hewett was at the Lahaina Fire Station when the call came in.
“None of us could really go to bed,” he recalled. “The whole place was howling and super noisy. And I was just thinking about different kinds of plans if the hurricane should hit.”
From the road, the fire looked to be about 2 acres, Lonokailua-Hewett said. By the time he got up the mountain, the fire had spread to 10 acres, and “basically hell is breaking loose,” he recalled.
Evacuations had already started. There were no lights because of the power outage Thursday afternoon, and winds were blowing down the mountain straight into the firefighters’ faces. People were screaming and frantic.
“It was a matter of where do we focus our energy because we only have one engine on scene at that time,” Lono-kailua-Hewett explained.
He said that firefighters had to make some hard calls, including the decision to not go further into Kauaula Valley because of access challenges, the lack of a water supply and “a lot of unburned fuel between us and safety.”
Firefighters were forced to turn their attention to the neighborhoods around the growing blaze. Lonokailua-Hewett said the way crews tackle incidents like these are by trying to keep the fire “in a box.” In this case, the sides of the box were the Lahaina bypass, Lahainaluna Road, Kapunakea Loop and the open mountains at the top, where damper conditions, gulches and valleys would likely kill the fire.
Based on how the winds were blowing, Lonokailua-Hewett outlined five main areas to protect in order of priority — the subdivision along Aulike Street; Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center and affordable housing complex; the subdivisions along Paunau Street and Kuialua Place; and Lahainaluna High School.
However, by the time Lonokailua-Hewett arrived at the Aulike subdivision along with Engine 1 from Wailuku and Engine 14 from Wailea, cars in the neighborhood were already on fire — longer-burning and a lot harder to put out than a brush fire.
“If these houses catch on fire, then we’re going to lose the whole neighborhood,” Lonokailua-Hewett said. “If we lose this block . . . there’s a really, really good chance that we lose Puamana as well.”
With backyards already catching fire and a “super dangerous” flame front approaching, firefighters went around, through and over fences to save the homes.
“All my firefighters did an amazing job to protect those homes,” Lonokailua-Hewett said. “This was a huge flame front. Then the wind switched and the thing started ripping towards the resource center.”
At Ka Hale A Ke Ola, home to nearly 300 people, a Ladder 3 crew from Lahaina fought to protect the buildings in the face of three to four, 30-foot fire swirls, which are like fire tornadoes, Lonokailua-Hewett said. The crew of four devised a plan to protect the two sides of the property facing the flames, allowing the fire to burn around the rest of the property. Using fire hydrants on property, they were able to pump “1,200 gallons of water a minute protecting this place, which is a lot,” Lonokailua-Hewett said. “And it worked. They protected the whole place by themselves.”
Crews in other areas also used limited resources to battle the flames. In the subdivision along Paunau Street, at least 20 houses along the perimeter faced the approaching flames. Since one engine covers two houses, an ideal situation would call for 10 engines. The Maui Fire Department only has 10 engines on Maui and one is in Hana, Lonokailua-Hewett said.
Using fire hydrants and marshaling resources from around the island, crews protected the homes, a feat that the battalion chief called “miraculous.”
“There is no real scientific explanation of it, because they were challenged beyond anything we’ve ever had,” he said.
Scientifically speaking, the odds appeared to be against the Fire Department. Winds were high from the approaching Hurricane Lane, visibility was low, and the department’s Air One helicopter couldn’t do water drops. Firefighters tripped and rolled down hills because they couldn’t see the terrain.
“Truthfully, the whole thing is a gamble,” Lonokailua-Hewett said. “You’re doing a risk assessment, a risk analysis all the way through, and you’re moving resources from location to location to location.”
Despite the conditions, firefighters also managed to save the Kuialua subdivision, which was already being “preheated” by the fire because of the rising heat, and Lahainaluna High School, where a baseball practice field and part of the track were burned, but not a single building was damaged by the flames.
Vice Principal Jeri Dean said she received a text from a firefighter saying crews would have died before they let the school burn; many of the firefighters were alumni themselves.
Just as Lonokailua-Hewett was changing shifts early Friday morning, a third fire broke out at 7:30 a.m. in the area behind the Lahaina Civic Center. Winds quickly spread the fire towards Puukolii Road, the Kaanapali Golf Estates and the Kaanapali Hillside subdivision. Crews worked to protect the homes, while police evacuated residents and dozers were used to cut fire breaks around the perimeter.
As of Monday, all three blazes were 100 percent contained, Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro said.
All told, the first fire burned about 30 acres in Maalaea and was contained thanks to rainfall, Yatsushiro said. Crews were airlifted to the burn site Monday to assess hot spots. The fire’s cause was undetermined.
The second fire burned about 1,500 acres from Launiupoko to Lahainaluna. At least 21 residential structures and 27 vehicles were damaged, while one woman sustained burns to her legs and arms.
The third fire burned about 800 acres in Kaanapali. No injuries were reported, while some external damage was reported to a home in the Kaanapali Hillside subdivision.
In his 24 years as a firefighter, Lonokailua-Hewett has seen plenty of major fires, including the brush fire two summers ago that burned 6,000 acres in Maalaea. But that was “not even close” to last week’s blazes because no homes or lives were at risk, he said.
He added that firefighters have battled three fires simultaneously before, but “not in storm-force winds, and not that big, not threatening houses at every fire.”
The losses in Kauaula Valley hit him especially hard — homes he wished they could have saved, families he’s known for years. He said he plans to meet with them face to face in the coming days, and added that the Fire Department is “here to help rebuild.”
“I’ve been emotional all day,” Lonokailua-Hewett said. “I’m just grateful that we were able to stop it.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.