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Fire prevention is everyone’s job

Public safety, MECO representatives discuss rash of summer blazes

Fire Prevention Bureau Capt. Paul Haake speaks to a full audience at St. Theresa Church on Tuesday about fire safety and the work the Fire Department has been doing to manage brush fires. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

KIHEI — With this summer’s rash of brush fires, everyone — from landowners to residents — needs to take precautions to protect lives and property, county public safety officials told a town hall meeting Tuesday.

“A few of the fires have caused a lot of anxiety and disruption in our community,” said Capt. Paul Haake of the county Fire Prevention Bureau. “Even if it’s an accidental fire, it can still grow and have a pretty big impact.

“It’s not just something that these landowners with only these undeveloped lands have to address, it’s not just something that they have to do to keep us safe.”

Pointing to the full crowd of attendees at St. Theresa Church’s Stawatz Hall, Haake said “some of the efforts are going to have to come from our part . . . from the people in here.”

County Council Chairwoman Kelly King, who holds the council’s South Maui residency seat, called the meeting following summer fires that have burned thousands of acres in South Maui. The largest and most dangerous of the fires started July 11 and burned 9,000 acres. It forced the evacuation of hundreds of north Kihei residents, cut off all access to South Maui for several hours, and threatened homes and the Maalaea Power Plant.

With its base still smoking, a burned power pole leans in Omaopio in this photo taken Aug. 2. MECO said 25 poles were damaged in the fire with a price tag of between $500,000 and $600,000. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Representatives of the Fire and Police departments, Maui County Emergency Management Agency and Maui Electric Co. appeared at the meeting, providing short presentations and answering questions from attendees about fire safety, prevention and mitigation.

The risk of brush fires has been higher due to the dry and unusually hot weather and the fallow old sugar fields, officials said at the meeting.

Haake said that some fires are not intentionally set, such as a recent brush fire started by a marijuana smoker, and others are difficult to determine the cause. “Then, we have some fires that we don’t know the causes, but because of the circumstances surrounding these fires, we believe that they are being intentionally set,” he said.

He said that the Fire Department usually arrives on the scene of a brush fire and puts the blaze out, Haake said. However, recently, firefighters have been calling police investigators to “take a deeper look at these fires.”

Arson investigations for some cases are ongoing, said acting Lt. Jonathan Acosta of the MPD Criminal Investigation Division. Earlier this month, the department asked the public to report any suspicious behavior in or around open fallow lands.

The Fire Department’s Air One helicopter makes a water drop on a major brush fire in Central Maui on July 11. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Arson was suspected in a Puunene fire the day after the big South Maui fire that burned hundreds of acres. Holden Bingham, 28, who has no local address, was taken into custody as an arson suspect in the big South Maui fire.

“Know that we are taking these fires very seriously and trying to figure out a responsible party for the fires,” Haake said.

In the area of prevention, the Fire Department is working to identify areas to establish firebreaks and to reduce fuel for fires. The focus is on areas where undeveloped land meets developed land, Haake said.

Landowners may be contacted by the Fire Department to develop a plan to install “permanent fuel breaks,” with the goal of mitigating direct fire contact with homes and to reduce the overall impact of fires by slowing their advance, he said.

Haake said landowners will be responsible for the costs of establishing the fire fuel breaks.

Reynolds

“Unfortunately, it’s not fair, but that’s what’s going to happen right now,” he said.

There could be county-funded community projects to prevent fires that could shift costs from the landowners, Haake said.

Embers also help spread fires and threaten homes. Haake suggested that residents clean the perimeter of their property of excess leaves, pine needles, trash and anything that can catch fire.

Fires can burn in the black burned areas for a couple months.

“Sometimes, fires can travel underground, they might follow the roots of a tree and go underground, or someone might bury rubbish under the ground and it will continue to burn,” Haake said.

Andaya

Fire Capt. Greg Jenkins added that combustibles, such as roots, trees and grass, may cause smoke in burn areas even after a fire is extinguished. He asked the community to call the Fire Department only for serious inquiries and notifications during any flare-ups.

Brush fires have taken a toll on MECO equipment. The South Maui fire burned poles and a power line to South Maui that forced the utility to route power up through Pukalani and Kula and all the way back down to Wailea and Kihei.

The 5,300-acre blaze that began Aug. 2 below Pukalani had an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 price tag for MECO with 25 poles damaged, said Chris Reynolds, director of system operations at Maui Electric, which maintains about 23,000 poles across the island.

“There’s a lot more fallow ag land out there and a lot more drier conditions,” Reynolds said. “We never really had fires up there, and we never had to worry about fires catching to the poles.”

He said MECO regularly inspects its poles and has “been adding a lot of fire retardants to our wood poles.”

During fire situations, MECO will keep power available for as long as possible, but power lines are de-energized for safety.

“I just wanted to assure you of some of the things that we do,” said Mahina Martin, MECO government and community relations manager. “We do safety training, not just for employees but for groups of the Fire Department, Police Department. We do regular presentations at schools, we called out to senior citizens, we do whatever requests that we have.”

Herman Andaya, head administrator for the county Emergency Management Agency, was grateful to firefighters and police officers.

“I just want to thank God for our Fire Department and our Police Department,” he said. “They saved Lahaina and saved Kihei.”

Andaya’s department provides shelter during evacuations and manages county alert systems (Makaala), which both were used during the South Maui fires and evacuations. The agency also applies for grants to supply resources and equipment needed during emergency situations.

Grants have been used for extensive training for firefighters, who go to the Mainland to fight fires. “By doing that, they get experience, and they bring that experience back home,” Andaya said.

The National Fire Protection Association site, firewise.org, provides more information and tips for fire safety. For more safety tips and emergency preparedness information, visit mauielectric.com.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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