Brush fire on Kahoolawe burns 7,300 acres, claims several structures

Published: Feb. 26, 2020 at 8:33 PM HST
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KAHOOLAWE, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A brush fire that started on Kahoolawe on Saturday has burned more than 7,300 acres, but firefighters are only able to monitor the conditions from afar.

Officials said the total perimeter of the burn area is about 13 miles long.

But because of the unexploded ordnance on the island, Maui firefighters can’t fight the flames.

Meanwhile, the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission said that new images from the air show that the fire has claimed the organization’s main storage facility and surrounding structures.

“We know we have at least three of our Polaris ATVs parked in that area in the building, and then we probably lost two jet skis, and then tons of chainsaws, weed whackers and hand tools,” said Michael Nahoopii, KIRC’s executive director.

KIRC plans to send a team back out to the island on Thursday to see if any equipment can be salvaged, but the early estimate is that the wildfire caused at least $500,000 worth of damage.

Firebreaks helped to protect most of the organization’s base camp on the western end of the island.

The fire appears to be advancing along the north coast, but the flames seem to have slowed in some spots, according to the commission.

Clay Trauernicht, a wildland fire specialist at the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension, has been using hotspot satellite images to track the fire’s progression.

"As it moves towards the summit, you kind of run out of fuels, he said. “You hit these hard pan areas where there’s just not a lot of vegetation to burn. Fortunately, that’s where most of the restoration work is taking place.”

The setback comes as the commission tracks two bills at the legislature which request $500,000 for base camp operations, plus funds for two more staff members.

Any money set aside by lawmakers may now have to be diverted to cleanup and recovery efforts, according to Nahoopii.

With the wildfire burning a lot of invasive weeds, officials are also looking at opportunities to bring in native plants and grasses.

The base camp of another group, the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, is on the northeastern coast.

Members will retrieve cultural objects on Thursday and try to protect their infrastructure and equipment with firebreaks.

“We’re just using this window of time to get there and at least lock down whatever possible equipment that we can save,” said Craig Neff, a PKO senior advisor.

A cause for the fire is still unknown.

The island’s history is a sensitive point for Native Hawaiians.

Starting in 1941, the United States military used the island for target practice as a bombing range.

It wasn’t until 1993 when Congress voted to end the military use of Kahoolawe. They also authorized $400 million for ordnance removal, but many unexploded bombs remain.

KIRC has launched a fundraising campaign to help deal with the damage from the fire.

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