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2019 was Maui’s year of fire

Weather, fallow fields contributed to blazes across 25,000 acres

Maui firefighters douse hot spots along the Piilani Highway edge of a July 22 brushfire in Kihei. The fire broke out in the morning and burned 80 acres about a quarter-mile north of the Maui Meadows subdivision in Kihei. By sundown the Fire Department had declared it 100 percent contained. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAHULUI — More than five times as many acres were blackened by Maui County wildfires this year compared to 2018, fueled in part by fallow former sugar cane fields and weather, including record-breaking heat, fire officials said Friday.

The 25,000 acres that burned in “a very active fire season this year” is the most acreage in recent years, said Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro.

In comparison, he said 3,900 acres burned last year, 14,000 acres burned in 2016, and 8,000 acres burned in 2010.

In 2005, the burned acreage totaled 1,300.

“What compounded things this past year was the weather,” Yatsushiro said. “It’s been hotter than usual, windier, drier.”

A pilot makes a water drop near Piilani Highway on July 22. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Since April, more than 90 heat records have been broken or tied at Kahului Airport.

“I would hope this year’s weather pattern will be just an anomaly,” Yatsushiro said.

In some large fires, “very dry weather, very low humidity, very high winds” made for challenging conditions for firefighters, said Deputy Chief Brad Ventura.

The causes of the fires have varied.

“For most of our wildfires, it’s very difficult to determine location or place of origin, let alone the actual cause,” Ventura said. “Because we’re not there when it happens.”

A helicopter pilot carr\es a load of water during an October brush fire high in the West Maui Mountains above Maalaea. Parched conditions and whipping winds fueled the fast-moving blaze, which started high on the mountain and closed Honoapiilani Highway on the pali. The fire had burned 4,000 acres by nightfall. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Yatsushiro said a burned vehicle was found upwind near the suspected origin of a brush fire that burned about 600 acres in Paia this month, threatening Doris Todd Christian Academy and Skill Village homes. It hasn’t been determined whether the brush fire burned the car or a car fire ignited the brush, Yatsushiro said.

Ventura noted that some of the larger wildfires were purposefully set.

Police arrested a 28-year-old homeless man as a suspect in a wildfire in July that scorched 9,000 acres after starting in Waikapu and spreading to Maalaea and north Kihei. Another man was arrested as a suspect in another brush fire that burned 5 acres near Hana Highway and Airport Access Road in July.

A fire that burned about 80 acres in Kihei in July was started by an 18-year-old man who told police he had been smoking marijuana when embers from his pipe ignited the brush, police said.

Malfunctioning machinery was the cause of some fires, including one in August on 5,300 acres of former sugar cane fields below Pukalani.

Helicopter pilots battle an Oct. 2 brush fire. Four helicopters were called in to battle the blaze located in the West Maui Mountains above Maalaea. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

In July and August, firefighters battled about 60 brush fires a month, Ventura said.

“And nobody sees the small ones” that are quickly extinguished, he said.

“We’re very fortunate with the equipment and training that our guys have, they’re able to do good things and prevent most of them from becoming large,” Ventura said.

Fire officials have talked with some large landowners to help clear critical areas to mitigate the fire hazard.

The planting of crops by Mahi Pono, which owns 41,000 acres of former Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. cane fields, “will definitely help us with the fire problems,” Ventura said.

But he said there are factors beyond the Fire Department’s control.

“A lot of the open land is private and we don’t dictate what’s done,” Ventura said. “We don’t know what the landscape’s going to look like in one or two years.”

“We always preach that fire prevention is everybody’s effort,” he said. “Even though we work with certain people to cut firebreaks and maintain land, it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep the area around their homes neat and tidy and not have vegetation up against homes so fire can’t carry.”

Added Assistant Chief Rick Kawasaki, “Don’t throw yard waste around property or over the fence.”

With much open land burned or planted, “I think we’ll be in much better shape next year,” Kawasaki said. “I don’t think it will be as bad.”

But he said if forecasts for a wet winter hold, there could be more fuel to burn in the new year.

As New Year’s Eve approaches, officials are reminding people to use caution in setting off fireworks and to stay away from structures, dry grass and brush or other readily ignitable materials.

“Be smart about fireworks,” Ventura said.

While wet weather could help firefighters, they still battled a brush fire Christmas Day that burned 1.5 acres near Firebreak Road in Puunene.

“It’s December and it’s raining, and we still had a Christmas brush fire,” Ventura said.

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

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