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Fire 70% contained; complaints lodged about notifications

Only couple of text alerts on Maka‘ala emergency system

Helicopter pilots are shown battling the brush fire Wednesday. Four helicopters were called in to douse the blaze. By Thursday evening, fire officials said the wildfire was 70 percent contained. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

While firefighters gained the upper hand in a wildfire that burned 4,100 acres above the pali Thursday, residents complained about the sparse number of text and email alerts from the county’s Maka’ala emergency system on the fire and highway closures.

“I am truly disappointed that this emergency system failed in a real emergency,” said Roger Ross of Kaanapali in an email to The Maui News.

There were only two text alerts Wednesday about the wildfire, which began in the morning in Maalaea and burned over the pali to Papalaua by nightfall, forcing a shutdown and occasional contra-flow of traffic on Honoapiilani Highway on Wednesday and Thursday.

The first text alert came at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday about the brush fire and to avoid the area and the second alert at 6:35 p.m. offering information about shelters.

“Fire started this morning, Honoapiilani Highway closed about 12:30. Major road closure and the County of Maui website has no information, no text alerts or email alerts sent,” said Ross in an email late Wednesday night. “Social media has the information. Repeat: The county did not send out the notifications we signed up for, emails and text alerts!”

Ross said he had plans to go to “the other side” Wednesday but canceled them when he learned of the wildfire.

“I was reading social media statements from MPD about 12:30 p.m. stating they were closing the road, but no email or text alerts, which I have been receiving ever since Maui County offered the service,” said Ross, who has lived on the west side for 25 years.

He said he called the emergency number and learned that the road was in fact closed at about 1:30 p.m. His first Maka’ala notification came by email at 5:50 p.m., though it had a 1:30 p.m. time stamp, he said.

“Why did they fail?” he asked.

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry said Thursday that the Maui Police Department handles road closure notices on the Maka’ala system, but because of a high volume of calls into dispatch operators Wed-nesday there were interruptions and delays.

“MPD and the Maui Emergency Management Agency recognize that timely public notification is important, and they will review protocols to improve road closure information provided through the Maka’ala system,” he said.

At 5 p.m. Thursday, the Fire Department said that the 4,100-acre fire remained 70 percent contained. Twenty-eight firefighters worked the perimeter of the fire Thursday, and firefighters will continue to monitor overnight. The department’s Air One helicopter continued water drops until 3:30 p.m., and state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife officials joined the firefighting effort, the county said.

Honoapiilani Highway opened to contra-flow traffic at about noon Thursday after state and Fire Department crews used heavy equipment to build a berm to prevent the wildfire from reaching the road in West Maui. The highway was fully opened to traffic later in the afternoon.

The highway was completely opened after midnight Wednesday after being closed most of the afternoon and night but was limited to one lane and eventually completely closed by 11 a.m. Thursday for the berm work.

The Ukumehame Firing Range also was closed.

The county reported Thursday afternoon that the fire jumped Honoapiilani Highway and left hot spots on trees and burned other areas in Papalaua Wayside Park. The park was closed, and the county parks department was contacting camping permit holders. The park will be reassessed Monday.

Traffic that had been stopped trying to get to the west side through the rugged Kahekili Highway on the back side was turned around to Waihee on Wednesday night, county officials said. There was a terroristic threatening arrest in the backed up traffic, allegedly involving a threat with a machete.

There have been no reports of injuries or property damage from the wildfire, the county said. Homes on the makai side of Honoapiilani Highway near Maalaea Small Boat Harbor and the Kaheawa Wind Power facility were evacuated Wednesday.

Emergency shelters at Maui High School in Kahului and Princess Nahienaena Elementary School in Lahaina closed at 7 a.m. Thursday. Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku and Lahaina Civic Center opened at 6:30 a.m. to allow the two schools to open for students. All shelters were closed by Thursday morning.

The American Red Cross reported about 450 people at Maui High and 22 people at Princess Nahienaena, the county said. The Maui Visitors Bureau provided more than 250 inflatable mattresses for people at the shelters.

A county official said Wednesday night that most of the people at the Maui High site were visitors, who had either just arrived and could not get to their hotels or were awaiting crews for their flights to arrive at the airport from the west side.

It took Joanne Laird four hours to travel 8 miles from Maui Lani to her home in Maalaea on Wednesday night/Thursday morning. She and her husband, Larry, left their friends’ home in Maui Lani at 10:30 p.m. and didn’t make it home until 2:30 a.m.

The traffic was at a complete standstill moving about four car lengths every 15 minutes, she said.

“We got stuck on Kuihelani Highway,” she said in an email. “As we were creeping along, we could see the red taillights of the vehicles on the Lahaina-bound Honoapiilani Highway breezing through the intersection after 12:30 a.m. But there were the two left turn lanes attempting to get through the intersection; our movement was severely limited. It never eased while we were on Kuihelani.

“We made the turn (onto Honoapiilani Highway) at 1:30 a.m. After that it took another 40-50 minutes to make the left turn into Maalaea village. There was movement along this stretch but very slow.”

Joanne Laird ended up not going to work Thursday.

“This ‘senior citizen’ cannot make it on three hours of sleep,” she said.

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