Chinook helicopters join assault against Molokai brush fire

 Chinook helicopters join assault against Molokai brush fire

2 September 2009

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Molokai, USA — Two CH-47 Chinook helicopters were thrown in to the aerial assault against a wildfire still burning Wednesday morning in remote forest areas of Molokai, said Gen Iinuma, Maui County Civil Defense administrator.

Smaller helicopters that have been fighting the fire since it started around noon Saturday were redeployed, he said.

“We don’t want to have too many helicopters in the same place,” Iinuma said. “We’re moving the assets around to support the ground crews.”

The twin-engine, tandem rotor Chinooks with their distinctive cigar-shaped profile are based with the Hawaii National Guard in Kaneohe, Oahu, and they bring advantages and disadvantages in fighting wildfires, according to Iinuma.

The CH-47s carry 2,000-gallon loads of water and can dump much more water in fewer trips than the smaller helicopters outfitted with 100-gallon buckets of water, he said. However, the larger helicopters are not as maneuverable as smaller aircraft, and the tremendous amount of downdraft created by the Chinooks’ rotors can make the fire worse.

“If they don’t do it right, they’ll fan the fire,” he said.

Iinuma said the Chinooks were concentrating their efforts in the Makakupaia section of the Molokai Forest Reserve and in the Onini Gulch. The gulch is near the Kawela Plantation where there are some homes, he said.

The steep forest areas are difficult terrain for ground crews to reach flames, he said.

Iinuma lauded the skill of helicopter pilots fighting the fire.

“The pilots we have fighting the fire are probably the best in the world,” he said, adding that Hawaii’s fickle wind conditions make flying “very, very difficult.”

On Tuesday night, hot spots were identified within the estimated 8,000 acres burned so far by the blaze, and ground crews were working Wednesday to stamp out areas that could flare up into flames, Iinuma said.

Crews were making it a priority to put out hot spots near populated areas, he said.

Firefighters also were maintaining the fire’s perimeter, which remained unchanged from Tuesday to Wednesday, Iinuma said.

He said officials were concerned about a red flag warning issued by the National Weather Service for leeward areas of all islands. The warning means conditions are ripe for fires. Those include strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures.

The warning was expected to remain in effect until 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“Low fuel moisture levels over leeward areas and strengthening trade winds will increase the fire danger to critical levels today,” the weather service said in its warning.

Nevertheless, firefighters were in “top shape” Wednesday, Iinuma said.

“Morale is really good,” he said.

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