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Dry brush fuels fire storm

Kihei cut off; power plant threatened; roads, airport closed; evacuations ordered

A Maui Department unit proceeds down Kuihelani Highway on Thursday with the smoke and flames from a runaway brush fire that burned about 3,000 acres by evening. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

WAILUKU — Thousands of people were asked to evacuate and more than 3,000 acres of fallow fields were left charred after a “dynamic” brush fire that started Thursday morning in Waikapu and swept toward Maalaea and north Kihei before heading up the slopes of Haleakala as night fell.

The “rapidly” moving blaze that fed off dry brush and strong winds came close to north Kihei homes, pump stations and Maui Electric’s Maalaea Power Plant before heading up the slopes of Haleakala, according to Mayor Michael Victorino.

As of 9:30 p.m. Thursday, the mileslong fire was not contained, but no injuries were reported. However, some Mahi Pono farm equipment may have been damaged, Victorino said.

“Currently, this is still a very dynamic situation we have in the north Kihei area,” Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro said at a news conference Thursday night. “This fire is far from being declared contained.”

Mandatory evacuations were ordered by the county for residents in north Kihei and Maalaea around 3 p.m. Maalaea’s mandatory order was lifted around 5 p.m. and north Kihei’s by 9:30 p.m. About 2,100 to 3,000 people reside in the evacuation areas, Victorino said.

A wildfire started south of the intersection of Kuihelani Highway and Waiko Road.

The Kihei Community Center, manned by the Department of Parks and Recreation, had 156 people and six dogs before 7 p.m.; Kamalii Elementary School, manned by the Red Cross, had 253 people; War Memorial Gym, manned by Red Cross, had about 200 people, according to a county report.

Victorino urged residents to “stay vigilant,” while adding that the county may have “weathered the major part of the event.” Hot spots, wind speeds and dry conditions contribute to the variable nature of the “rapidly” progressing brush fire, he said.

About 3,000 acres had burned according to Victorino’s estimate during an afternoon helicopter trip.

“This is as dry as I’ve seen Central Maui in many, many years,” he said. “This is my nightmare I knew would come sooner or later because everything is so dry.”

Maui police spokesman Lt. Gregg Okamoto said 911 services suffered interruptions due to the fire and told people in crisis to continue to call.

Maui Humane Society longtime volunteer Laurie Pottish hugs a staffer as they are evacuated Thursday from the Puunene shelter to Maui High School.

“If you do need help, please keep calling and you will eventually get through,” he said.

The county’s Emergency Operating Center, a coordination of county and state agencies that provide public resources during potential crisis events, was activated Thursday and will remain open until the threat passes.

Andrea Finkelstein, county Emergency Management Agency plans and operations officer, encouraged people to call EOC at 270-7285, and officials can “give updates based on the information we have now, and also we can help direct people to resources they might need.”

The Kaiser Permanente Kihei Clinic will be closed today as a result of the brush fire and access issues, according to Kaiser spokeswoman Laura Lott. Patients will be contacted and rescheduled.

Power outages, along with internet, cellphone and landline service interruptions, occurred during the day due to the fire. Backed-up traffic, closures and blinding clouds of smoke impacted roadways.

Three helicopters were making air drops all day Thursday to help douse a wildfire in Central Maui.

Around 200 animals were evacuated from Maui Humane Society to Maui High School. The animal shelter was not damaged by the fire.

North Kihei Road reopened as of 10 p.m. Thursday, the county said. Previously, vehicles had been allowed through but only with an escort.

Kuihelani and Maui Veterans highways were reopened after complete and partial closures earlier in the day. The closures left frustrated drivers along the side of the road near the Puunene Shopping Center and traffic jams throughout town. Maui Veterans Highway completely opened at about 10 p.m.

Access in and out of South Maui was completely closed off around 3 p.m. Thursday. Oprah Winfrey, who owns a private access road from South Maui to Ulupalakua, responded 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. This was many hours ago,” she tweeted. “Hoping for the safety of all.”

Air One makes a water drop on a wildfire Thursday.

The county Department of Transportation provided six motor coaches and five school buses on standby basis at Kahului Airport to transport visitors and affected residents to shelters. The Transportation Department said it was in the process of transporting 300 people from Kahului Airport to the War Memorial shelter.

The state Department of Transportation, which reported at 4 p.m. that flights were being diverted from Kahului Airport, which was on generator power, said the airport was open again at 6:15 p.m.

Some airlines were offering travel vouchers. People catching flights were urged to call their airlines to confirm reservations; there were reports of flight crews unable to get to the airport for their flights.

The fire came close to the power plant earlier in the evening but at last check, the threat had subsided, county officials said.

“We still have crews engaging it and protecting the power plant,” Yatsushiro said. “Last we checked, the fire had made its way very close to the station. We were prepared to protect the power plant with our ground personnel. Last I heard, things were looking OK.”

A wildfire started south of the intersection of Kuihelani Highway and Waiko Road. Kuihelani Highway was closed most of Thursday as fire crews battled the runaway blaze.

MECO spokeswoman Shayna Decker said late Thursday that MECO generating facilities were not affected by the wildfire.

“Should personnel have to evacuate the Maalaea Generating Station in the interest of safety, Maui Electric staff are prepared and equipped to operate at an alternative location to maintain electrical service,” she said.

At 1:50 p.m., there was a power outage in South Maui affecting 4,000 customers due to the fire, MECO said. Electricity was restored to majority of customers by 3 p.m. after rerouting power. A remaining three customers are offline until the fire can be contained and crews can assess the situation and restore power, said Decker.

The Central and South Maui fire was one of three brush fires Thursday on Maui.

A Haiku brush fire that burned 3 acres near Pauwela Point Lighthouse was reported at 5:30 p.m. and contained at about 7:39 p.m. A Lahaina brush fire that burned about 2 acres near Launiupoko was reported at 2:45 p.m. and contained about 45 minutes later, Yatsushiro said.

The Central Maui brush fire, reported at 10:42 a.m. Thursday, began south of the Kuihelani Highway and Waiko Road intersection. It quickly swept south toward Kihei and Maalaea, covering more than 1,000 acres of fallow field by midafternoon due to 15 to 20 mph winds with some larger gusts.

Much of the land that burned is owned by Mahi Pono, Victorino said. Mahi Pono purchased 41,000 acres of former sugar cane land from Alexander & Baldwin in December.

On Thursday night, Shan Tsutsui, Mahi Pono senior vice president of operations, said the company is working with county officials and damage cannot yet be determined.

“I have been in direct contact with the mayor’s office and the managing director to offer Mahi Pono’s full support to the county as they work to extinguish the devastating brush fire,” he said via email. “Since this morning, Mahi Pono’s crews have been providing assistance by helping to put up fire breaks and have offered access through our property. We want to thank all of the hard-working individuals from Maui Fire Department and the county who are risking their own lives to protect the safety of our community and minimize the destruction.”

The Fire Department’s Air One and Two helicopters and another helicopter responded to the scene to make air drops of water. The department responded with three engines, three tankers and two battalion chiefs on scene. The department also has received assistance with bulldozers from West Maui Land Co., Goodfellow Bros. and the county Department of Public Works.

Victorino asked that visitors check with their airlines first before departing for Kahului Airport. During the height of the blaze, visitors were told to stay at their hotels and off the roads, and car rental companies were informing visitors not to drive to Kihei.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.