Fire Sparks Concerns

By Jack Kiyonaga, Editor 

Photo by Kevin Donnelly.

Last Sunday, Nov. 5, a fire ignited along the side of Maunaloa Hwy., just before Kaluakoi Rd. By 4:25 p.m., firefighters from stations in Kaunakakai and Ho’olehua had responded to the scene, successfully containing the blaze within an hour. While the fire only burned about an acre of land, residents are concerned that it could have been much worse. 

“We dodged a bullet,” said Norm Rizk, president of the West Molokai Association (WMA), which represents over 800 homeowners. 

Nov. 5 was a red flag day across Maui County, with low humidity and high winds driving up the risk of fire. The cause of Sunday’s fire has yet to be released by the Maui Fire Department.

With west Molokai currently in a state of severe drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor, and conditions predicted to worsen, west end residents are deeply concerned. These worries have led the WMA to form a working group to address fire concerns before it’s too late. 

“[Wildfire] is a disaster that really needs to be treated as a public safety risk,” explained Rizk. “It affects everyone.”

Since 2019, Erin Peyton, a resident of Paniolo Hale, has worked with the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization as a community wildfire ambassador. 

“The most important thing is community involvement to prepare for a wildfire,” explained Peyton.  

She focuses on “simple things” that can make a big difference. These include keeping grass below four inches, clearing leaves and undergrowth, and using healthy green plants to create a fire barrier. Peyton also educated people on strategies for “hardening your home” to embers. 

“It’s just education and awareness,” explained Peyton. “It’s a forever forward motion on educating people.”

Education has taken the form of passing out pamphlets, go-bags, and smoke detectors at the library and Saturday market. Peyton, along with fellow Molokai community wildfire ambassador Kama Ward, also do home fire assessments for free. 

Currently several projects are underway to help reduce the risk of fire on Molokai’s west end. According to Peyton, Molokai Ranch is testing their fire hydrant system and has installed an access road for fire trucks, which doubles as a firebreak just north of Paniolo Hale. 

Likewise, Peyton explained that Molokai Ranch is looking at improving an evacuation route in case Kaluakoi Rd. becomes impassable in an emergency. 

One of the long-term projects that Rizk would like to see come to fruition is a Manauloa fire station. Rizk explained that while there is land already selected for a station, there has yet to be any real progress in building one. 

While the process of establishing a new fire station is a long road, Rizk and the WMA are writing a letter to Maui County Mayor Bissen and Gov. Green in the hopes of spurring action.

In the meantime, individuals can have a big impact in preventing fires. 

Rizk hopes that by “attuning people to simple measures they can take personally to prevent fires,” the likelihood of a disaster will be mitigated. 

Actions such as not operating heavy machinery on high grass during red flag days, not throwing cigarette butts out the window and not starting fires on the beach, can go a long way in helping to reduce fire risk, explained Rizk. 

And while Sunday’s fire ultimately proved benign, it served as a warning for the west end community. 

“We all need to pull together around this or there is going to be a real tragedy on the west end,” said Rizk.


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