Bracing for Summer Fire Season
Officials are predicting a potentially dangerous fire season on Molokai this summer. With little rain last winter and ongoing drought conditions, the island has been called a hotspot in the county. Firefighters have responded to four fires in the past week, all of which are considered suspicious, according to Fire Inspector Rick Schonely.
“The conditions for fire are extreme with drought and fuel load but if we don’t have anyone setting fires, we can make it through the summer without a big fire,” said Schonely. “If anyone is setting these, they have to realize how dangerous it is, not only to themselves, but to… the whole community.”
On June 6, five separate fires were ignited within a two-acre area in Halawa Valley, according to Maui Fire Services Chief Lee Mainaga. Schonely said the area consisted of banana patches; land owner Pu`u O Hoku Ranch declined to claim property damage. Molokai Police Detective Jamie Winfrey said a 28-year-old male was arrested, but later released pending investigation.
Last Monday, a three-acre brush fire blazed in Kalamaula; no injuries or monetary damages were reported. Later the same day, a fire also started in an abandoned vehicle in Kaunakakai and spread to nearby vegetation. Schonely called both fires suspicious but unrelated.
The following day, June 12, an unoccupied wooden structure burned in Kamalo, causing an estimated $60,000 in damages. Schonely said the 20-by-30-foot fishing house burned to the ground; investigation of the incident is ongoing. Schonely said a fire is deemed suspicious when its cause cannot be immediately determined.
Trend of Improvement
While the season is off to a hot start, officials have noted a trend of improvement in response time and length of burn in Molokai’s larger brush fires.
“Fires aren’t as devastating as they used to be,” said retiring Division of Forestry and Wildlife Maui District Forestry Manager Glenn Shishido.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Director of Molokai Programs Ed Misaki agrees, noting the Molokai brush fire in 1998 burned 15,000 acres and took two weeks to suppress. The last major brush fire in 2009, he said, burned 8,000 acres and burned for a shorter five days.
Both Shishido and Misaki, members of the Molokai Fire Task Force which met last week to discuss the summer’s fire season, credit improved inter-agency cooperation and communication for the progress.
The task force, started in 2003, gathers representatives from organizations like the Fire Department, TNC and the Forestry Division to meet regularly to strategize and share resources for fire prevention on the island.
Schonely said Molokai has been lucky with no injuries or damage to homes from fire. But despite the advancements, officials agree this summer carries deadly potential.
Maui Fire Department Battalion Chief Travis Tancayo said current conditions on Molokai are similar to those in 2009, when the massive brush fire threatened homes, farm land and native species.
Schonely warns those who may be intentionally setting fires that the danger is serious. The Fire and Police departments ask residents to report any suspicious activity.