Gaining ground over blazes: Residents return to N. Kihei; end of fire in sight
Firefighters gain upper hand on 9,000-acre wildfire
WAILUKU — At sunset Friday, fire crews appeared to have gotten a handle on Thursday’s runaway wildfire that scorched more than 9,000 acres in Central Maui and north Kihei with the blaze 70 percent contained.
That was in stark contrast to the previous night, which saw thousands of people evacuating their homes in north Kihei and Maalaea, an uncontrolled fire threatening the Maalaea Power Plant, access in and out of Kihei blocked and Kahului Airport shut down.
As things returned to normal Friday, residents got a look at how close they came to losing everything.
Patty Hickey returned to her Kihei home Friday morning to see that the wildfire had stopped only 20 feet from her backyard fence.
“We were just sort of shocked,” she said. “Looking at it, it came really close.”
She was feeling “grateful that our house didn’t burn down,” she said. “We just really appreciated what we have. That was the main thing we took away. I was surprised how quick everything happened.”
It wasn’t totally normal, though. Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge remained closed Friday with fire still burning and smoldering. There was no Summer PALS in South Maui; the Kihei Aquatic Center was closed due to debris and the Pukalani Pool, because of smoke; and Kaiser Permanente Kihei did not take patients.
The Transportation Security Administration urged travelers to get to the airport more than two hours early Friday — security checkpoints may have been overwhelmed at times because of canceled flights Thursday rescheduled for Friday, a TSA official said.
And Maui Humane Society animals remained at Maui High School on Friday. The staff and animals had to evacuate the Puunene shelter when the fire threatened.
Maui Electric Co. said its Maalaea Power Plant survived the fire unscathed but a power line from the plant to Kihei was damaged. The utility asked customers to reduce power use during the evening peak period to ensure sufficient electricity for all.
Gov. David Ige on Friday afternoon issued an emergency proclamation declaring Maui County a disaster area. The proclamation enables the state to provide “quick and efficient relief from damages, losses, suffering caused by the disaster, and to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people,” the county said.
“I am declaring our Valley Isle a disaster area for the purpose of implementing the emergency management functions as allowed by law. The emergency proclamation also authorizes the expenditure of state monies as appropriated to support speedy and efficient relief efforts,” said Ige.
Victorino said there was no loss of any structures or injuries reported.
However, there have been reports of damage to Mahi Pono farm equipment and an old surplus truck brought and used by the Valley Isle Timing Association at the Maui Motorsports Park to put out fires.
Rows of old Tournahauler tires at the motor sports park burned, leaving only metal, said Lenie Lawrence, safety officer for the Maui RC Modelers, which has a field at the park.
Most of the eucalyptus logs that surrounded the Maui RC Modelers field were burned, leaving ashes, and some logs were still on fire, he said. Kiawe trees in the area burned as well.
No determination has been made about the cause of the fire, Maui Mayor Michael Victorino said. He made a reference to homeless people being a factor Thursday but said Friday that he wasn’t certain about the cause.
Victorino preached vigilance at his morning news conference Friday, saying “we are not out of the woods in any way, shape or form.”
The roads and airports were open and the evacuations and thick billowing smoke lifted. But there were worries about strong winds and high temperatures.
But by the afternoon news conference, the tone became more positive. Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro said “we are making progress today.”
Firefighters were concentrating on the perimeter of the fire, cutting firebreaks with bulldozers and dousing hot spots with water, the county said. Three helicopters along with a National Guard Chinook helicopter all were making water drops on the blaze.
The aircraft will be back at first light today, along with on-duty and callback firefighters, the county said Friday evening.
Victorino said Friday afternoon that during his earlier flyover Friday that “most of the hot spots were out.” He reported that the fire did not appear to be moving.
There were 23 Fire Department firefighters battling the blaze along with 23 personnel from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Yatsushiro said Friday morning.
The fire was first reported at 10:42 a.m. Thursday south of the intersection of Kuihelani Highway and Waiko Road. It quickly spread, jumped Kuihelani Highway and headed toward Maui Veterans Highway.
The wildfire, fed by brisk winds, burned toward Maalaea and north Kihei, threatening the Maui Humane Society, which was evacuated, and north Kihei homes. The smoke and flames closed access to Kihei for several hours; Kuihelani Highway, Maui Veterans Highway and North Kihei Road were shut down in the afternoon and into the night.
Victorino said the fire spanned Waiko Road, past Maui Veterans Highway, halfway up to Haleakala Ranch and all the way toward Ohukai Road and north Kihei.
“It was quite extensive and quite a lot of burnt areas,” he said Friday.
But he noted: “We have better control of it now.”
There were no calls for evacuations Friday as had been the case for north Kihei and Maalaea on Thursday. Shelters at the War Memorial Gym, Kamalii Elementary School and the Kihei Community Center all were closed Friday.
At one point Thursday there were close to 2,000 people taking shelter at Red Cross-run shelters or at the Kahului Airport, where 540 people remained Thursday night.
Victorino added that hotels were at capacity, according to the Maui Visitors Bureau.
“There are no rooms,” he said.
Despite two decades of living in dry, kiawe-filled north Kihei, Hickey said she’s never experienced a brush fire so close to home.
Hickey said metallic-looking, thick smoke raced into the area when they received emergency evacuation alerts Thursday.
“The whole sky was gold. It was very eerie,” she said. “It’s an intense color that I would not like to see again.”
Hickey, a Realtor who has lived in the house she owns with Shawn McCall for 20 years, was ready to leave for work in Wailea. She raced back into the house and grabbed the most important things: Two birds, one cat, clothes, a computer, work documents, valuables, and a needlepoint her mother made.
By 2:30 p.m,. they had left for a friend’s place in Kalama Heights. They returned around 7:30 a.m. Friday and began cleaning the soot. The charred smell was still very strong, she said.
Hickey credits fire and police for defending her home and others nearby. A fire marshal and “a whole crew” came down the street “like a platoon” during evacuations to get everyone out, she said. Hickey said she felt more safe after seeing how professional they were.
“I can’t say enough about what a great job they’ve done,” she said. “They saved our neighborhood.”
There were seven flights canceled or diverted from Kahului Airport on Thursday, said state Transportation Department spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige on Friday. The diverted flights originated from domestic airports and were rerouted to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Oahu.
The reason for the diversions and cancellations were primarily due to lack of road access out of the airport, she said. Several airlines canceled flights because crews were unable to get to the airport.
Maui police and National Park Service officials worked with airport officials to obtain escorts for flight crews from Kihei to Kahului so some flights could leave, Kunishige said.
“HDOT Airport staff worked tirelessly to ensure the safety and comfort of the passengers needing to stay on Maui overnight,” she said.
Administrative staff worked overtime to answer phones; custodial staff also toiled overtime to maintain restrooms and holding rooms for the 540 people who chose to stay overnight in the terminal, Kunishige said.
She added that the Maui District Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting Section joined the firefighting efforts, focusing mainly on the Maui Humane Society, and then helping to fight the fire along Maui Veterans Highway.
Battling the fire
Around the fire perimeter site in north Kihei and Maalaea, small patches of smoke still could be seen Friday morning, even in the vicinity of the Maalaea Power Plant.
After the morning news conference, Yatsushiro said that isolated patches of smoke will be a common sight, and fire crews will monitor for flare-ups.
Yatsushiro said the blaze has been difficult because of the winds and the remoteness of the fire. The record 94 degree heat Thursday did not help, and on Friday the high temperature was 91 degrees, tying a record set in 1984.
He explained that the dense, dark plumes of smoke observed Thursday shrouding Kuihelani and Maui Veterans highways could be due to the dense kiawe or abandoned vehicles burning.
“Hard to say at this point,” he said.
Trying to call
Victorino asked for patience if people could not get through by phone to county offices at the Kalana O Maui building because the fire impacted fiber optic cables. He said Hawaiian Telcom expects full service to return soon.
Those calling 911 also may need to continue to call to get through, Victorino said.
Victorino said Friday afternoon that Hawaiian Telcom crews still were “having challenges” with the restoration of fiber optic cables.
Ann Nishida Fry, senior manager of corporate communications for Hawaiian Telcom, said Friday afternoon that the majority of its affected services were restored. The main locations of its damaged cable were near the Pvt. 1st Class Anthony T. Kahoohanohano Armory and near Kealia Pond.
Crews worked through Thursday night into Friday to access the area as soon as it was deemed safe by officials, Nishida Fry said. They completed preparation work to replace damaged fiber optic cables spanning about eight poles along Maui Veterans Highway. Splicing was completed around noon Friday.
If customers still are experiencing issues they can call toll free 643-6111 or file an online support request at www.hawaiiantel.com/Residential/Support/SubmitSupportRequest/tabid/1346/Default.aspx.
Regarding internet and phone issues, Nishida said that in emergency situations “there’s generally a lot of congestion, which can lead to some calls not completing.”
She added that depending on how cellphone companies and other service providers have configured their networks and traffic and where the calls are being placed, services could be impacted. She said specific providers would have more details.
At the pond
Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge was closed Thursday and Friday. Refuge biological science technician Suzanne Conlon said Friday morning that so far the refuge office and visitor center as well as maintenance area were spared.
But fire burned to within 30 feet of the sanctuary’s visitor center. Conlon and intern Kassandra Townsend were spraying water from garden hoses on hot spots and smoldering stumps and logs near the building off Maui Veterans Highway on Friday morning.
Kealia Pond officials still were assessing the impact of the fire to the refuge, Conlon said.
Areas around the refuge visible from Maui Veterans Highway were blackened from the fire. At the Maalaea mudflats, smoke still billowed in the air from inside the refuge.
Animals take flight
Pets, volunteers and Maui Humane Society staff spent the night at Maui High School on Thursday because they had not been given the all clear to return to the shelter in Puunene.
Late Friday afternoon, Nancy Willis, the director of development, said they were still at Maui High, but with fewer animals. The nonprofit’s internal network of foster parents had arrived to take animals home.
Among the 200 dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals evacuated from the shelter, around 100 remained Friday. Some 60 cats and 15 to 18 dogs and rabbits have been taken by foster parents.
Officials got the word Friday morning that it was OK to return to the animal shelter, but Humane Society officials decided against it. Willis said she stopped by the shelter and still could see fire. Friday’s brush fire near the Lowe’s in the Maui Business Park that threatened the closure of Maui Veterans Highway further sealed the decision.
Rather than quickly moving back then having to evacuate again, Willis said officials decided to stay put.
“We are in good shape. We are in a good spot. There is a breeze, they are in the shade,” Willis said.
A shave ice truck pulled up giving the volunteers and staff a cool treat. The public also has been bringing food. On Thursday, the mayor’s office brought sleeping cots, and the public donated supplies and lights.
* Staff Writers Lila Fujimoto and Matthew Thayer contributed to this report. Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji @mauinews.com, Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada @mauinews.com, Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.