50-100 vehicles got out the back way

Ranch opened road Upcountry to 4x4 vehicles

While Maui Veterans Highway was closed Thursday as a fast-moving wildfire headed toward Kihei, some residents and tourists made their way out of South Maui on a dirt road normally used only for Ulupalakua Ranch operations.

Late Thursday afternoon, as vehicles backed up by the gate to the road in Makena, it was opened for 50 to 100 four-wheel-drive vehicles, said Sumner Erdman, president of Ulupalakua Ranch.

“We relieved the traffic that was on the road at one point in time for anybody that had four-wheel-drive,” Erdman said.

He was at the bottom of the 6-mile road while ranch staff were at the top of the road, which ends past the ranch toward Kanaio.

Some of the waiting motorists knew about the road, Erdman said.

“There were tourists that had four-wheel-drive vehicles,” he said. “There were local people in the line. There were businesses in the line.”

He tried to explain to tourists trying to get to Kahului Airport that their flights might not be leaving if flight crews couldn’t get to the airport. Some drivers weren’t happy when Erdman told them their cars couldn’t make it up the road without four-wheel-drive.

“Overall, everybody was pretty calm,” Erdman said. “Most of the local people work in Kihei, and they just wanted to get home.”

The road, which was improved when it was used to transport wind turbines for Auwahi Wind in Ulupalakua, is in better condition than other ranch roads that workers use to check pastures and irrigation and do other work, Erdman said.

Still, the road “is really rough,” with only enough room for one vehicle in places, he said.

“It would be six very slow miles,” he said. “It would be a half-hour drive.”

Erdman said the ranch doesn’t own the bottom of the road, which is Makena Golf and Beach Resort property.

When the fire closed Maui Veterans Highway between Central and South Maui on Thursday, the ranch offered to open the road if Maui County declared an emergency to accept liability, Erdman said.

“The response we received was it wasn’t a life-or-death situation, and they didn’t think they needed to do that,” Erdman said.

The Ulupalakua Ranch road is in a different location from a paved Upcountry-to-Kihei road owned by Oprah Winfrey. That road runs between Keokea and Kihei near the location of the planned high school and goes through Haleakala Ranch grazing land.

The possibility of using Winfrey’s road was raised on social media Thursday, and she responded Thursday night to a Twitter post from Jack Moussally asking her to open the road.

“Hi there Jack. Access to the road was given to county officials immediately,” her tweet said. “This was many hours ago. Hoping for the safety of all.”

Maui County spokesman Chris Sugidono said Friday county officials didn’t use the Winfrey road.

At a news conference Friday, Mayor Michael Victorino said he wouldn’t encourage nighttime use of Winfrey’s road because it wasn’t designed for travel at night.

He said Haleakala Ranch has a portion of that road as well.

Responding to complaints about why people weren’t allowed to use the road, Victorino said smoke was headed Upcountry on Thursday night.

“I’m going to send people who are in smoke to Kula to get stuck in more smoke?” he asked.

He added that there weren’t enough police resources to ensure safe travel.

“The last thing I want to do is have an accident or another challenge on that mountainside,” Victorino said.

Erdman said he recalled two other times when Ulupalakua Ranch opened its road, once because flooding closed Kula Highway. Both previous times, the road was opened for travel downhill.

Thursday was the first time the road was opened for uphill travel, Erdman said.

While he heard from employees that some people wanted to use the road to go downhill to Makena on Thursday, Erdman said he didn’t see anyone driving in that direction.

The ranch wasn’t affected by the wildfire, Erdman said.

“It was an unfortunate situation, but it’s something a lot of us predicted when we lost sugar cane,” he said.

Gone are the irrigation and bulldozers that were used to fight fires when Alexander & Baldwin owned the land.

“We’re just lucky,” Erdman said. “I have to give credit to everybody who fought the fire and to the Fire Department. Their ability to be able to contain that and not lose a structure is pretty incredible.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.