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Controlled Burn Clears Hazardous Brush

The Maui Fire Department (MFD) conducted its first Molokai-based controlled burn last week, clearing out 50 acres of overgrown brush behind residents’ homes in Kalama`ula between Feb. 4 and 7.

Nearly 40 firefighters from Molokai, Maui, Hawaii Island and the Pacific Northwest participated in the exercise, which, besides decreasing the potential for wildfire, also provided live training for firefighters.

“It’s a good area to mitigate hazards,” said Kaunakakai Fire Captain Henry Lindo, explaining that fires in that area tend to spread quickly, pushed forward by winds.

Maui County’s first controlled burn took place in December 2013 in West Maui, and other islands have conducted controlled burns before, but this is Molokai’s first. Lindo said they saw an opportunity for the island and were able to work with the Department of Hawaiian Homelands to secure permission for the exercise. In the past they’ve purposely burned brush on the island as a “suppression tactic” to stop spreading fires, but have never done so as part of a dual purpose training and mitigation exercise.

According to an MFD press release, county firefighters were also working towards certification as a Type 3 Incident Team. Fires are categorized depending on their “complexity,” which includes size of the fire and the amount of personnel required to fight it, said Lindo. Type 1 requires the largest amount of personnel and coordination between emergency responders and local agencies like the Department of Forestry.

“We don’t even have Type 2 team in Hawaii. We gotta call in from the mainland,” said Lindo, who hopes an exercise like this can start local fire departments on the road to developing Type 2 certified incident teams.

A Type 1 certified team from the Pacific Northwest was on hand during the exercise to observe and advise local firefighters. Hawaii Island firefighter Jerry Lum explained that their Type 3 training focused largely on the administrative side of things, as Type 3 fires require working with larger teams to manage incidents. Currently Lindo is the only Type 3 certified firefighter on island, although several Molokai firefighters are also working towards the certification. Kahului Batallion Chief Richard Kawasaki said they’re also training to improve their response to other emergencies.

“The team we’re trying to build is for all hazards,” said Kawasaki. “It could be a hurricane or a tsunami, not just fire related.”

Kalama`ula resident Waymouth Kamakana said some residents expressed “mixed feelings” at a meeting about the controlled burn, as some were concerned that the fire department would have problems conducting a fire during the rainy season. However, Lum and Lindo said that conditions were favorable throughout the week, and Kamakana, a retired firefighter, said that residents also understand the benefits.

“People have seen fires here before,” said Kamakana. “… It’s not an easy place to get into because of the rocks and the terrain, so I think this is a good thing. If anything happens, [the firefighters have] been here before.”

Lum added that the fire crews trained with a technique known as “backburns,” in which they scorched brush in the path of the fire to eliminate its fuel, which can be especially useful in wildfires far from water sources.

Lindo said they hope to have another controlled burn next year. Similar events in the future, as well as actual emergencies will be made easier after last week’s exercise.

“We’ve already made contacts, we know who we’re dealing with and how to work together,” he said.

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