KEALAKEKUA Driving through a blackened landscape on a 35-foot-wide path dug up by bulldozers, Bill Bergin pointed out koa trees and ohia trees. Some were charred to a crisp, others remained, tall and proud.
“That’s what is known as 1,000-hour fuel,” said the Waimea Station fire equipment operator. “Those trees can burn for 1,000 hours. … The only way to fight it is with bulldozers.” After more than 16 hours at the Kealakekua Ranch fire, Bergin was still making rounds, checking on the varied crews working the fire breaks and helping coordinate all of the little details. Left to mop up the fire, crews are preparing to demobilize, though some firefighters remain on the scene. As his four-wheel drive bounced along the rocky rubble, a slight drizzle of rain began hitting the windshield. Bergin looked at the sky, hoping to see more. “Rain, now that would be a good thing,” he said. Many of the 49 people still fighting the 1,800-acre fire yesterday afternoon were also hoping nature would aid their efforts. “This is a forest fire, not a brushfire,” said Miles Nakahara, National Park Service planning chief, who has been assisting the Hawaii County Fire Department with the Kealakekua Ranch fire that broke out on Dec. 27. “There’s a misconception that we should be able to just come in here, throw some water on it and it will be out, but it’s not that easy.” Firefighters are faced with many challenges: Extremely dry conditions, rugged terrain, lack of water, heavy fuel sources, cold weather and safety concerns. The drive to the 4,400-foot elevation burn area traverses rocky pastures and ohia forests. Once there, crews spend the day, or night, concentrating on the fire’s edges, attacking flare-ups, watching for hot spots and working on extinguishing the smoldering undergrowth. Fire crews work from the outside in, starting at the fire perimeter, shoring up fire breaks and then working into the fire, Nakahara said. The target is 50 feet in from the perimeter, and crews are at about 30 feet, he added. “We can’t extinguish every piece of smoke that we find,” Nakahara said. “The fire goes underground with the root system and an organic layer of soil holds the fire. … That’s where we need the manpower.” Since Thursday, between 50 and 60 people from numerous agencies, including the Hawaii Fire Department, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Pohakuloa Training Area, National Park Service, volunteer fire units and volunteers from Kamehameha Schools, fighting the fire. At the fire’s height, five privately owned bulldozers, three helicopters and numerous off-road equipment, including brush trucks, tenders and tankers, had been put to use. Yesterday, two bulldozers continued work on the fire breaks, but helicopters were no longer doing drops. Tessa Chieves and her crew from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have been focusing their wildland firefighting on extinguishing the smoldering undergrowth since arriving on scene Friday. With hand tools, they dig up the smoldering areas, water them down and then stir the water with the dirt, Chieves said. “We’ve had a lot of really warm weather and the moisture level of the grass is really low, so even if the humidity in the air is high, the fire will still continue,” she said. “Fire in this type of terrain and with these fuels is very stubborn. We can cool down an area only to come back in a few hours after the sun heats it up and it’s smoldering again.” For the past several days, fire crews have widened the fire breaks by setting back fires to increase the margin of safety along the perimeter, Nakahara said. Lack of water has also been a challenge. Trucks bring water from Konawaena to fill the water tanks, as well as three dip tanks, or portable tanks that have been placed strategically around the fire’s perimeter; one trip can take at least three hours, Nakahara said. Fire crews also deal with the heavy smoke in the area, some of them unable to talk after being on scene for a 24-hour shift, Bergin said. The smoke worsens at night and in the early morning hours when temperature inversions create a cap, Nakahara said. As it gets colder, the heavy air pushes down on the fire, creating a cap where the smoke just billows over the ground. But as the land mass heats up from the sun, the inversion breaks so the smoke is not seen as much during the day, he added.