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Kahoolawe fire more than doubles in size

Commission not sure about funds needed in aftermath

The Maui Fire Department estimates that 5,400 acres of brush has burned on Kahoolawe as of 10 a.m. Monday. The fire broke out Saturday morning, but crews are unable to fight the fire because of hazards posed by unexploded ordnance on the former military target island. Maui Fire Department photo

With a brush fire on Kahoolawe burning out of control and doubling in size Monday, it was too early to tell if or how much additional funding the island’s caretakers, the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission, will need for repairs, maintenance and replacement costs, the commission’s director said Monday.

Fire officials said around 5,400 of the island’s 28,500 acres had been blackened as of Monday afternoon; the fire was first reported around 9:50 a.m. Saturday on the southwest end.

Firefighters have not been battling the fire due to concerns over unexploded ordnance on the island, formerly used for bombing practice by the U.S. Navy, fire officials said.

Assessments were made by air Monday morning, and the Fire Department continues to monitor the blaze.

KIRC Executive Director Michael Nahoopii said Monday that even with no rain in the forecast, the blaze could die out when it reaches hard pan areas with exposed red dirt and no fuel. The fire currently is being fueled by invasive grasses.

This photo of the Kahoolawe brush fire was taken off Lahaina on Sunday night. OUIS RHEAUME photo

KIRC will be seeking assistance from the DLNR Forestry Division to help identify the cause of the wildfire, Nahoopii said. He also may look into partnerships to see if native grass seeds can be placed in burned areas to take the place of the invasive buffalo and fountain grass that have burned.

KIRC staffers surveyed fire damage Sunday. Nahoopii said the island’s base camp was spared but a small bathroom with a composting toilet was destroyed, along with some inoperable vehicles that were being used for spare parts.

As KIRC monitors the brush fire, it is also keeping up with the status of bills at the state Legislature. The bills could give KIRC, an administrative branch of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, $500,000 for additional operating funds and $72,000 for two full-time positions to continue to restore the island, protect endangered and rare flora and fauna and ensure the safety of volunteers to the island, according to Legislature documents.

Currently, the state provides the commission a little over $1 million annually to pay for its 15 staff members, office rent on Maui, running the commission and other operations, Nahoopii said.

The two proposed staff members would help with operations, including running a boat back in forth between Kahoolawe and Maui and assist with a nursery that would raise plants for the island, rather than buying them.

Around four years ago, KIRC’s $44 million trust fund from the federal government ran out. KIRC cut staff members, which at one point reached 26, to bare-bones levels.

Looking beyond this supplemental budget session, Nahoopii said KIRC will be seeking funding for its education and operations center on 8.3 acres next to the Kihei Boat Ramp.

The project would consolidate commission operations in a new 24,000-square-foot, two-story facility in South Maui. Currently, commission staff work at a site in the Wailuku industrial area, where there’s a warehouse full of artifacts and museum-ready memorabilia, and in Kihei, operating KIRC’s boat, its lifeline to Kahoolawe.

The center also would include an interactive exhibit about Kahoolawe, meeting spaces, classrooms, a visitor center, gift shop and cafe. There also would be an outdoor performance and gathering area and a new plant nursery.

The project has a $40 million price tag, Nahoopii said. The project has cleared its major land entitlement hurdles but still needs funding and construction permits. It could take six to eight years to come to fruition.

Since commercial activities are not allowed on Kahoolawe, the center would provide some income to help KIRC be financially stable. Legislators in the past have pointed out a need for the organization to raise its own funds.

KIRC was established by the state Legislature in 1993 to manage the Kaho`olawe Island Reserve while it is held in trust for a future Native Hawaiian sovereign entity. Kahoolawe was turned over to the state by the federal governemnt in 1994.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.