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Lawmakers mull ways to deal with fire risk, relief

Cause of August blazes in West Maui are still undetermined

Windswept flames and smoke rush toward a pair of luxury Launiupoko homes on Aug. 24. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

State and local lawmakers are looking for ways to provide relief for West Maui residents still working to rebuild their homes and crops after fires in August.

West Maui state Rep. Angus McKelvey said the fires brought several issues “to a glaring point” that he hoped to address through various bills this session. He said one bill would aim to move utilities underground in critical areas like West Maui, pointing to the utility poles that went down near the Lahaina Civic Center a few weeks before the fire.

Another measure would give farmers a three-year grace period to pay back agricultural loans. The fires in August “really kind of brought it to a focal point, because you now have farmers who lost everything, and they’re having to pay it back,” McKelvey said, adding that the grace period would apply to new farmers as well.

“The idea is you need at least a couple years to get up and running and produce something,” he explained. “It’s hard to get food sustainability if a farmer gets a loan and they have to start paying it immediately, and the seeds haven’t even sprouted yet.”

After speaking with residents, McKelvey said he was also considering ways to get funding to install a water tank in Kauaula Valley, giving families another option if first responders can’t access the area. He said he felt a sense of concern seeing the brush grow back on the hillside.

Maui firefighters mop up at the Hawaiian Dredging baseyard in Puamana. The Fire Department was unable to come up with a cause of the fire. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“We’re cruising for a bruising in West Maui right now with all of the rain we had and all the regrowth, and now it’s all dead again,” McKelvey said.

Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin, chair of the Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee that oversees the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said the agency has limited staffing and budget, and she hoped to see more resources to address disaster planning, staffing and recovery.

“After we had the fire, after we had the flooding, one of the biggest things people needed was roll-out dumpsters and portable toilets, because people want to start cleaning up right away,” said Paltin, who holds the West Maui residency seat.

However, while there was plenty of community support, the cleanup took extra effort because the county didn’t have the budget to contract for portables or bring in dumpsters, she said. Volunteers spent one weekend piling everything up and the next weekend moving everything to the dumpster, “which could’ve all been done in one shot.”

Paltin said she was still putting together her budget priorities and didn’t have specifics yet as to the funding or staffing increases she would like to see.

A metal roof and satellite dish are all that’s visible of a collapsed Lahainaluna Road home that burned on Aug. 24. The damage in the fire totaled $4.3 million, with 21 homes and about 27 vehicles destroyed. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“I’ve heard folks talk about volunteer firefighting programs before. I don’t think that’s the answer for us as a No. 1 resort destination,” Paltin said. “We need to pay our firefighters. But in a remote valley where we’ve seen this happen, maybe we can do some outreach or do some plans ahead of time. . . . This isn’t the first time, and it may not be the last time. You know it happens, so now what?”

Many Clues, No Answer

An investigation by the Maui Fire Department yielded several clues but no clear answer as to what caused the fire.

Investigator Parrish Purdy, who authored the report on the fire, described the night as clear and warm, with temperatures just shy of 80 degrees and winds of 25 mph blowing in a northeast direction.

At around 12:45 a.m. Aug. 24, a police officer radioed other units to see if anyone noticed an orange glow coming from Kauaula Valley. The first officer to arrive on the scene found a fire burning about 1 to 2 acres north of 640 Punakea Loop near the reservoir and pump station. Another fire was burning 100 yards west of that, which the officer thought might have been caused by embers from the first fire.

Fueled by strong winds, the fires spread quickly to nearby fields and homes.

In Kauaula Valley, Charley Palakiko smelled smoke and spotted an orange glow over the ridge. He raced toward the reservoir to open a dam to let water run through the family’s property, then rushed back to his house and started to evacuate the area. Keeaumoku Kapu was at the recreation center when he got word of the fire. He drove back up the hill and when he got home, he noticed that the nearby Makila Hydro plant’s light was on and the turbine was running.

But Heidi Bigelow of West Maui Land Co. told Purdy otherwise. She said the hydro plant’s operations were suspended after decisions regarding stream flow standards for Kauaula Stream created uncertainty over whether the plant would have enough flow to operate. The hydro plant, which powers the Launiupoko Water Co. Well 3 and delivers electricity to Maui Electric Co.’s grid, hadn’t been operating since June and did not have any maintenance issues, Bigelow said.

Chris Reynolds, MECO’s director of system operations, also told investigators that the plant hadn’t been supplying MECO with power because of the water rights issue. Instead, MECO had been providing power to the pump house at the Kauaula Valley reservoir, Reynolds said. The switch that controls power between the hydro plant and MECO is secured with a padlock that can be opened only by MECO personnel.

Reynolds checked records going back two months and said there were none showing any work being done in the area of 640 Punakea Loop.

In the wake of the fire, investigators combed the hillside looking for clues. On Aug. 29, they visited the Makila Hydro plant, where the fire burned up to the plant but did not impact the building. The plant did not appear to be operating that day, the report said.

Investigators also checked out a possible cooking spot within the burned area just above the Dizon family’s property. There were two holes in the ground about the size of a soup can with some burnt debris inside, but the holes appeared to be made by a small tree that was burnt down to its roots. Investigators didn’t find anything that could have ignited the fire.

The area around the reservoir also had power lines and high voltage energy lines. On Sept. 4, investigators went up to the dirt road just southwest of the hydro plant, searching for downed poles or lines. All of the lines and poles that ran to the pump house by the reservoir were still standing.

On Sept. 18, investigators revisited the pump house, where MECO personnel reported what looked like a gas can below one of the power lines near the pump house. The report said the can also looked like a can of primer used for gluing PVC pipes and showed oxidation, though investigators could not determine the cause of the oxidation.

“It is often very difficult to pinpoint the cause of a fire,” the fire chief’s office said in an emailed statement.

The fire chief’s office said that to determine what might have ignited the fire, investigators first have to find out where the fire started. They then examine potential ignition sources in the area and determine whether those sources are damaged from exposure to the fire or because they started the fire. Likely ignition sources are then examined by forensic experts, mechanical or electrical engineers or other specialists.

The point of origin was found to be a portion of land above the Kauaula Reservoir wrapping around the reservoir’s northwest portion. However, investigators could not determine the cause or the materials that started the fire. The only factor ruled out for sure was lightning strikes.

“The power lines were identified as potential ignition sources because they were located in the area of origin,” the fire chief’s office said. “Based on information gathered thus far, they have not been ruled out as the cause of the fire. Regarding the hydro plant, the only data available at this time are the statements taken in the fire report.”

No evidence points to arson, but investigators could not rule it out, the fire chief’s office said.

The damages in the fire totaled $4.3 million, with 21 homes and about 27 vehicles destroyed.

The Rebuild Continues

Kapu, who’s served as a spokesman for the families in the valley, said last month that about three or four families were rebuilding their homes, while others were waiting for permits. Thanks in part to large donations of piping from the community, the water situation has also improved, with families able to reinstall burned waterlines.

Some families are still displaced, living with other relatives around the island or in hotels, as Emily Ancog and her family were until they had to leave because rooms were booked up in the holiday rush.

Ancog said she and her family weren’t in the valley when their home burned down. The island was on alert due to the approaching Hurricane Lane at the time.

“We were staying at my mom’s because there’s a stream that runs along our house,” Ancog said last month. “We were worried about it overflowing. . . . We weren’t actually home, so luckily they (her daughters) didn’t go through the trauma of having to evacuate.”

Ancog said her sister-in-law called her early on the morning of Aug. 24 to alert her of the fire.

“I think initially it was just kind of, it doesn’t really settle in,” Ancog said. “You don’t really believe it.”

The family didn’t go up until a day or two later to survey the damage, and they’ve been working to rebuild their home and restore some normalcy to their lives since then.

Just before Christmas, the family got a surprise — 6-year-old Lily and 4-year-old Sophie were chosen to receive brand-new bicycles as part of the Street Bikers United Maui Chapter’s annual toy drive. The shiny new bikes replaced ones they lost in the fire.

“They were super excited,” Ancog said as her girls admired their bikes in the parking lot of the Azeka Shopping Center. “We actually didn’t even know she (Sophie) was getting one because it was set up by Lily’s school.”

For the morning at least, the family’s main concern wasn’t the loss of their home and belongings, but whether or not the girls could ride their new bikes without training wheels. Lily said she was “not sure I’m ready.”

“I think we just need to practice,” Emily Ancog assured her daughter.

Kapu said families were dealing with the stress of rebuilding their homes while holding down their jobs and handling the politics and paperwork of post-disaster relief.

“Everybody’s still trying to make ends meet and doing some work there at the same time,” Kapu said. “They got their own jobs too. That’s kind of the hardest thing, yeah? You got to put food on the table, but at the same time pay for your earthly bills.

“I think it’s going to be a long healing process for everybody,” he said.

Kapu said he’s met with McKelvey to see how the state and county can collaborate with the families in the valley “even though we’re outside the public utility areas.” He was also supportive of putting in some sort of water tank and hoses that residents could access, “because once our pipes went out, our whole water source within our houses was done,” he said.

Kapu and others in the valley have argued since the fire that they control their brush but that nearby private landowners — in particular West Maui Land Co. — do not.

“For us in the valley, we abate our valley by making sure we cut the brush, take care of the taro patches,” Kapu said. “What’s the conditions for the private landowners making sure they abate their properties too?”

Repeated attempts to reach out to West Maui Land Co. since the fire to ask about its brush control practices have been unsuccessful.

The fire chief’s office said that “while the brush provided the fuel for this fire, the winds encountered during this incident were also a major factor.”

“Even if both sides did their part to control combustible brush in accordance with the fire code, the winds encountered this day were extraordinary and embers easily traveled beyond requirements,” it said. “Firefighters witnessed embers jumping the highway due to the strong winds.”

When asked what could be done to improve access or response in the future, the fire chief’s office said that improving roads, having available fire hydrants in the area and keeping brush down were all helpful measures.

“Unfortunately, these things cost money and take time,” it said. “The weather events of this day were unique and tragic. On a regular day, we are optimistic that the MFD could have confined the fire to a smaller area.

“It is up to the community and policymakers to decide the level of expense and effort that they want to provide, in regards to any of the suggestions that have been brought forth. We will do our best to assist and serve in any way we can.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.