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Updated 4:40 p.m.: Maui firefighters battled three blazes

More than 2,000 acres burned; at least seven homes destroyed or damaged

Firefighters battle a fire in West Maui on Friday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — As Hurricane Lane approached Maui County from the south, firefighters battled three brush fires in a 10-hour span, from Maalaea to Kaanapali, on Friday. The blazes charred more than 2,000 acres, fire officials reported during a news media briefing.

As of 3 p.m., at least seven homes were either damaged or destroyed by fire, officials said. With Lane moving closer to Maui, interim Fire Chief Lionel Montalvo said crews were trying to get a handle on the fires as soon as possible before stronger winds make them more difficult to fight.

“That’s the concern,” he said after the briefing at the Kalana O Maui building in Wailuku. “Unpredictable wind patterns.”

Battalion Chief Michael Werner told reporters the first fire was reported at 9:44 p.m. Thursday in the Maalaea area, and it burned about 30 acres. That fire is 100 percent contained, he said.

Then, at 1 a.m. Friday, a fire in the vicinity of Kauaula Valley was reported. It blackened 1,500 acres and was 40 percent contained Friday afternoon, Werner said.

It was a long morning for firefighters battling a West Maui fire Friday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Then, at 7:28 a.m., a fire broke out in Kaanapali. It was estimated at 800 acres and 100 percent contained Friday afternoon.

Fire officials said the 1,500-acre fire destroyed and damaged the homes, which included residences at the back of Lahainaluna High School. Werner stressed that the public high school itself did not burn.

Fire officials did not know the causes of the fires. The only reported injury was to a woman from Kauaula Valley who sustained burns to her arms and legs. She was medivaced to Oahu early Friday morning.

Fire officials said the Air One helicopter could not respond to the fire immediately because of windy conditions.

Montalvo said obtaining a National Guard helicopter from Hawaii island was a possibility, but that possibility fizzled because of adverse weather. On Friday afternoon, weather conditions improved enough for Air One to join the battle against the blaze, Montalvo said.

A brush fire Friday burned close to Sue Cooley Stadium at Lahainaluna High on Friday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Fire officials estimated that 75 out of around 306 Maui County Fire fighters responded to the three fires.

Maui County crews and personnel from private companies including Hawaii Dredging Construction Co. and Goodfellow Bros. helped fight the fires.

Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu said police have officers and officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Parks Service and National Guard going into Kauaula Valley to do damage assessments and check on residents.

The fire affected the Police Department’s Central Dispatch because fiber optics were damaged, but because of redundancy built into the system, 911 dispatch was able to function.

If things got worse, the Police Department would be able to divert some calls to Molokai Police, he said.

Firefighters battle a fire in West Maui on Friday morning. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Mayor Alan Arakawa thanked Gov. David Ige and FEMA for providing pallets of food and water.

Arakawa said county officials were worried that the fire would cut off West Maui, so they asked for help.

Herman Andaya Jr., the administrator for the county Emergency Management Agency, said the Hyatt Regency in Kaanapali evacuees in its ballroom, but on Friday afternoon the area was full.

At least one Lahaina church took in evacuees, along with some other churches on the island.

Earlier reports from witnesses indicated that the Kauaula fire raced downhill, grew rapidly from 3 to 300 acres and threatened the mauka side of Lahaina town. Police evacuated more than 100 homes in the Puamana Subdivision as a precaution and advised people to leave their homes along Punakea Loop and Lahainaluna Road.

At least 10 fire companies responded to the scene of the blaze, with Category 2 Hurricane Lane approaching from the south. For hours, Honoapiilani Highway remained closed in both directions, isolating the resort West Maui community from the rest of the island. As of around 9:30 a.m., however, Honoapiilani reopened, but Kahekili Highway remained closed in the Lahaina-bound direction, officials said.

Around 500 people were seeking shelter at the Lahaina Civic Center Friday morning, Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said. There were 300 people inside the center and 200 outside in vehicles, he said.

The fire was located near the Sue D. Cooley Stadium on the Lahainaluna campus. Around 9:15 a.m., trees were still smoldering. The stadium did not appear to have burned.

The fire burned around the campus borders, although it was hard to tell if anything on the campus itself burned.

Around 9:25 p.m., firefighters also battled a brush fire in a gulch next to the Lahainaluna cafeteria.

Homes burned on the Maalaea side of Lahainaluna Road near to a baseyard used by Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co. The baseyard was burned, but it appeared that heavy equipment on the site was not damaged.

A worker at the civic center reported seeking flames and smoke from another, separate, fire in Kaanapali. That report came in at 7:30 a.m.

With the hurricane approaching, Lahaina resident Paul Laub had left his oceanfront home on Front Street and was staying at a friend’s guest place in Launiupoko.

At about 1:30 a.m. Friday, “I could see all this red.”

“I said, ‘This isn’t good.’ It turned out to be the fire,” Laub said. “We packed up and left Launiupoko.”

With Honoapiilani Highway closed in the Lahaina direction, he drove to Kahului and spent the night in a shelter at the Maui High School gym.

Laub said he decided to leave Lahaina because of predictions that the hurricane would bring high surf of 10 to 25 feet. “I don’t know exactly what that means, but I know the house is about 24 feet tall,” Laub said.

He said houses in his neighborhood are about 80 years old. “At least in the last 80 years, it’s been able to withstand everything,” he said.

“Whatever happens, everyone’s alive and I got the kitties,” said Laub, who was traveling with four cats.

A Launiupoko resident, who didn’t want his name used, said he packed up his car and drove downhill after police went through the neighborhood with loudspeakers at 4:40 a.m. Friday. 

“It was a very intense eerily orange glow during the night sky as the hurricane winds swept through neighborhood and added to the emotional contest with ourselves to try and keep calm,” he said.

He said the fire was at a lower elevation when he first saw it about 2 a.m. and appeared to climb higher up the mountain just before sunrise.

At about 9 a.m., after being allowed to return home, he said, “It’s not imminently dangerous.”

He said he was “affected in an emotional sense but not in a physical sense.”

Later, shortly after 10 a.m., he said the southern side of the fire appeared to be “dying down quite a bit.”

There were some active flames, but “less and less” of them, he said.

“There doesn’t appear to be further southward movement,” he said.

However, the fire appeared to have destroyed a dragon fruit farm in Launiupoko that had been “engulfed in flames.”

West Maui state Rep. Angus McKelvey, who lives in Launiupoko, said neighbors woke him at 2 or 2:30 a.m. Friday. 

“The sky was all lit up red and orange,” he said.

He could see the fire “marching down the hill toward us and up the mountain.”

“It looked like it was backing off.,” he said.

“Then all of a sudden,” at about 4 a.m., police showed up to evacuate residents.

“It was literally, like, bam, ‘OK, get up and go. Evacuate, flee now.’ “

He said the wind was whipping through the valley, creating little tornados. “It was grabbing the smoke from the fire,” he said. “It was pretty wild.”

McKelvey estimated that 100 people, including his 92-year-old mother, were evacuated from the Launiupoko area. He and some others decided to wait in their cars near an emergency staging area until emergency workers said residents could return to their homes, at least temporarily.

“The pre-storm prep came in handy. We had the cars gassed up,” said McKelvey, who waited in his car with his dog and cat.

At about 8:30 a.m., he was at home with no power, ready to leave again if conditions changed. “It looks like it’s starting to come under control,” at least in the Launiupoko area, he said. “It’s running out of area to burn and the wind is beating it back.”

He said neighbors who tried to drive to Lahaina were stopped by fire burning down toward Honoapiilani Highway. “The fire just kept marching toward Lahaina, then jumped the highway,” McKelvey said.

From a distance, he said he could see what looked like a house burning “like a Roman candle.”

Barbara Potts, a resident of the Aina Nalu condominium in Lahaina, said she received a phone call around 1:30 a.m. from her sister, Kathy Ramey, who lives near Puamana. She told Potts to get ready to evacuate because of the fire.

Potts went outside to watch the fire, and “finally, it looked like it was getting close.”

The Aina Nalu condominium is on Wainee Street, and the closest cross street is Dickenson Street.

Potts said she hoped the fire would be less threatening, but “it kept getting worse and worse.” The smoke was “pretty bad,” she said.

Finally, she left her condominium around 5 a.m., and as she was driving out of town “there were embers flying all over the place. It looked pretty dangerous.”

At the time, there was wind from the hurricane, but no rain.

The wind would “get really strong, then it would die down, and it would change directions a lot,” Potts said.

She checked into the Kaanapali Shores condominium where she worried about her sister and her condo unit.

She said she tried to text and call her sister but couldn’t get through.

“It’s nerve wracking,” Potts said. “I haven’t slept all night . . . I’m tired but I can’t sleep.”

A Lahaina resident, who declined to give his name, said he left his home below Princess Nahienaena Elementary school around 3 a.m.

He had already been awakened by Lane’s strong winds buffeting his home. He saw a neighbor outside using a flashlight.

“I look out the window and saw big flames everywhere. It always looks like it’s closer than it is,” he said.

He thought that, with the winds fanning flames, his family should pack up some belongings and leave.

“We could smell it and feel the heat from it,” he said.

After he left, he joined many others in going to the north end of the Lahaina bypass to get a closer look at the fire.

He later went to shelter “up north” in West Maui.

McKelvey said the fire demonstrated the need for a second route between West Maui and Central Maui.

“This underscores the broken record that keeps playing over and over again, having one road in and out. You need two highways. This kind of proves it. That’s the only thing people will say after it’s all said and done.”

At least two dozen people were moved from a hurricane shelter at Lahaina Intermediate School to the civic center in the early-morning hours as the fire threatened the location.

At the center, a generator was being used to keep lights on, but it was not strong enough to power air conditioning. With doors left open, smoke from the fire was blowing into the building, the civic center worker said.

Around 1 a.m. today, emergency personnel began responding to reports of a brush fire near Kauaula Valley in Lahaina, officials said. The 3- to 4-acre fire rapidly spread, and – as a precaution – county officials and Red Cross personnel evacuated as many as 26 people from an emergency shelter at Lahaina Intermediate School to the Lahaina Civic Center.

Initially, Honoapiilani Highway was closed in only the westbound direction between Shaw Street in Lahaina and Maalaea. Later, the highway was closed in both directions. It reopened as of 9:30 a.m.

Police reported at 3:29 a.m. that Kahekili Highway, Lahaina-bound, was closed because of the fire. Motorists were advised to avoid the area.

Hawaiian Tel customers were unable to make phone calls in the Lahaina area, police said. And, cellphone service was sporadic.

As of 4 a.m., 10 fire companies, tankers from both the Fire and Public Works departments and one battalion chief were at the fire scene.

At 12:31 a.m., the Hawaii Red Cross reported 381 people were in shelters in Maui County, including 57 at Lahaina Intermediate, 145 at Maui High School in Kahului, 75 at Lokelani Intermediate School in Kihei and 64 at King Kekaulike High School in Pukalani.