Kahoolawe fire burns 2,635 acres, spares base camp
Fire crews unable to fight blaze because of unexploded ordnances
A large brush fire on Kahoolawe had blackened 2,635 acres as of Sunday morning but spared the fuel tanks, solar panels and other key facilities at the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission’s base camp.
The Maui Fire Department, which is unable to battle the blaze because of concerns over unexploded ordnances, said that the fire was actively burning and not expected to stop anytime soon.
“The way things are now, it’s a tough situation,” Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro said. “Because of the uncertainties with the unexploded ordnances — and it’s not just little rifle bullets, we’re talking the possibility of large munitions that are still there — and so we obviously can’t put anybody on the ground or even to fly.”
The fire was first reported at about 9:50 a.m. Saturday and confirmed by Air One at Kealaikahiki on the southwest end of the uninhabited island. About 100 acres had burned by 11:30 a.m. Saturday. By Sunday morning, it had spread to 2,635 acres.
Because no other reconnaissance flights were planned for the day, the size of the fire was unknown as of Sunday afternoon. Yatsushiro said the direction of the fire was “situation dependent.”
“As long as there’s brush to burn, the primary direction is going to be dictated by the wind,” he said. “The fire’s going to want to move mauka, which it did. . . . Today we had light winds, so I think it predominantly moved uphill.”
KIRC Executive Director Mike Nahoopii said Sunday that the base camp manager had gone out in the morning to survey the damage. While the fire burned down a small bathroom with a composting toilet and some unusable vehicles that served as a source of spare parts, it largely avoided other facilities.
“I’m really surprised,” Nahoopii said. “It really just stopped feet away from our buildings. I think it’s because the roof runoff saturates the ground, and we’ve been purposely pushing back the vegetation around camp. I think that helped us a lot.”
He estimated the cost of replacing the bathroom at $20,000 to $30,000, mostly in transportation expenses.
KIRC has about 26 buildings on the south side of the island where they host volunteers and workers who come to help with restoration efforts. The base camp has housing for up to about 50 people, a dining hall, kitchen, outdoor meeting facilities and a research lab.
The off-grid camp uses reverse osmosis and desalinization to generate its own fresh water from the ocean. It also has its own diesel storage and diesel generators, though its main power source is now a 350-panel solar field capable of generating 80 to 100 kilowatts just to the north of the camp.
“We have a cable that takes power from the field to our batteries,” Nahoopii explained. “The fire stopped about a couple feet from the cable. We were shocked.”
Nahoopii said one of the things that helped protect the photovoltaic panels was the “concrete-impregnated cloth” that was installed underneath. He explained that it’s essentially a big roll of fabric with concrete mixed in that, when laid out on the ground, absorbs the overnight dew and hardens into a thin concrete layer. That likely prevented the fire from spreading or catching from embers in the air.
The fire also stopped just short of the camp’s vehicles and skirted the edge of the fuel tanks.
While crews will try to stop structural fires, Nahoopii said that the policy is not to fight brush fires because of the dangers posed by unexploded ordnances left over from the 50 years the U.S. Navy spent using the island for bombing practice.
Since Kahoolawe was returned to the State of Hawaii in 1994, about 65 percent of the island has been cleared of surface ordnances and 10 percent cleared down to a depth of four feet. About 25 percent of the island is still uncleared, mostly remote areas where access is limited.
Nahoopii said that fires have sometimes started because of leftover white phosphorous munitions on the island, which burn fast and form a crust that cuts the oxygen off and stops the fire. Erosion and loose boulders can knock off these crusts and start fires again. He also recalled another time that a hot catalytic converter on a truck sparked a fire in some grass.
But perhaps the most harrowing example of why first responders don’t fight brush fires was the time Nahoopii got caught in a fire while doing demolition work as the Navy officer in charge of the island in the ’90s. As they were setting off some bombs, it sparked the brush around them.
“As we were running back to the beach in our jeeps with the flames popping up left and right of us, we could actually hear small arms, bullets cooking off . . . around us,” Nahoopii recounted. “That’s why we don’t fight these things out in the field.”
The current fire hasn’t impacted KIRC’s work, as they mostly do plantings at the top of the island in the wetter areas. Nahoopii guessed that the fire would probably burn until it hits the “open hard pan areas,” the exposed areas of red dirt where there’s no fuel. He said the main road that goes along the “center spine of the island” was also creating a big fire break and protecting the southern part of the island.
With the fire feeding mostly on invasive grasses that can burn at a higher humidity than native grasses, Nahoopii said it’s a good reminder of why it’s so important to push back the invasive plants and keep planting native ones.
He said they would likely go to the island this week to survey the north coast and see how far the fire went, as well as check to make sure there are no smoking embers around the camp.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.