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Fire Prevention Bureau issues report on Kaua‘ula Valley Brush Fire

By Staff | Jan 3, 2019

An aerial photo of Kaua‘ula Valley shows the devastation caused by the Aug. 24 fire.

LAHAINA – The long-awaited Investigative Report on the Kaua’ula Valley Brush Fire was issued mid-December by the County of Maui Department of Fire & Public Safety’s Fire Prevention Bureau.

Lead Investigator Parrish Purdy authored the seven-page analysis of what happened during the early morning hours on Aug. 24, when a fire fueled by the strong winds of Hurricane Lane swept through the foothills above Lahaina destroying 21 resident structures and approximately 27 vehicles, a total loss of approximately $4,300,000.

Maui Police Department officer A. Sellers first witnessed the orange glow coming from Kaua’ula Valley at 12:45 a.m.

Officer J. Joaquin, traveling north on Honoapiilani Highway, observed the orange glow and responded.

Approaching the area, Joaquin experienced the intensity of the fire “located north of 640 Punakea Loop near the reservoir and pump station. The fire was about one-to-two acres in size.”

There was another fire 100 yards west of the fire at the reservoir, he said, and cited, “strong winds were blowing through Kaua’ula Valley, and the fire spread quickly to neighboring fields and homes.”

At 0740 hours, Purdy arrived to assess the situation, noting its path: “The fire quickly spread from Kaua’ula Valley to neighboring communities due to high winds. The fire spread from the valley down to the Lahaina Bypass where it jumped the road continued down to Honoapiilani Highway. The fire burned to Dickenson Street and Lahainaluna Road. Later in the day, the fire started to burn back up the valley,” Purdy cited.

Purdy explained that the “investigation utilized the scientific method of inquiry as a systematic approach to gather information and to document the fire scene from the area of least fire damage to the area of most fire damage with the purpose of determining an area of origin, identifying an ignition source and first-materials ignited and describing the act or action that brought these factors together.”

Six witness statements, including Joaquin’s, were taken: Kimo Hodgens, Pioneer Coffee Mill; Charley Palakiko, Kuleana land resident; Ke’eaumoku Kapu, Kuleana land resident; Heidi Bigelow, West Maui Land Company; and Chris Reynolds, Maui Electric Company (MECO).

The investigation commenced at Makila Hydro Plant on Aug. 29.

“Fire burned up to the plant but did not impact the building,” Purdy wrote. “The hydro plant did not appear to be operating on that day.”

Kapu was an eyewitness; he contends, “the hydro plant was operating. Plant had light and the turbine was running.”

West Maui Land Company’s statement was contrary to Kapu’s. “The hydro plant was not working on the night of the fire,” Bigelow claimed.

Purdy also examined a “possible cooking area that was within the burn area just above the Daizon camp. There were two holes in the ground about the size of a soup can with some burnt debris inside. The holes appeared to be made by a small tree that was burnt all the way down to its roots. The debris inside the hole looked to be pieces of the roots. No ignition sources could be found in this area.”

David Dizon had questions about this conclusion.

“First of all, they misspelled our name in the report. Why would they mention that the two perfectly dug up holes that were 100 feet away from our land was a cooking area and then say those two perfectly dug up holes were from the roots of a tree? Why even mention it was a cooking area if their findings told them it was a tree that burned?”

Kaleo, Dizon’s cousin, wondered why the county would reason that the family – living in homes, not camps – would have a cooking area 100 feet behind their property.

Purdy also inspected other potential ignition sources. “Power lines were found in the area of the reservoir. The lines are serviced by Makila Hydro (West Maui Land Company) and Maui Electric Company. There are also high voltage energy lines a few hundred yards east of the reservoir.”

Southwest of the hydro plant was also under investigation. Purdy followed electric poles and lines looking for any downed power lines.

“All poles and lines were still standing that ran to the pump house down by the reservoir. Continued walking west a few hundred yards from the white water filtration filters looking for any other ignition sources. No ignition sources could be found in the area,” he wrote.

Purdy further inspected points east of the reservoir for any points of origin. “None could be found,” he advised.

In his summary, Purdy observed, “The general area of origin was identified as a portion of land above Kaua’ula Reservoir and also wrapping around the northwest portion of the reservoir.”

With regard to ignition sources, Purdy’s findings were inconclusive:

“Makila Hydro (West Maui Land Company) power lines in the vicinity of the pump house and reservoir. These lines are north of 640 Punakea Loop. There lines run from the pump house to a hydro plant in the Kaua’ula Valley. These lines run west for about a quarter of a mile before turning and heading north to the hydro plant. At this time, I am unable to rule out the power lines as a possible ignition source.

“Maui Electric Company also have power lines in the area of the pump house and reservoir. These lines can provide power to the pump house or receive power from the hydro plant. Maui Electric Company also has high voltage lines to the northeast of the reservoir that provide service to Lahaina. At this time, I am unable to rule out the power lines as a possible ignition source.

“I am unable to rule out that this fire was intentionally set,” he wrote.

Purdy, however, was able to rule out lightning strikes as a cause. “There were no reports of lightning in the Lahaina area on that night.”

“The materials first ignited could not be identified,” Purdy observed.

Yolanda Dizon was not pleased.

“I did not receive any closure. All they did was throw the questions back to us. The questions we had asked the fire department investigator, it was thrown back to us. There was no answer,” she said.

“In fact, I was insulted – insulted that they claimed that we lived in camps, like it was back in the plantation days. We do not live in camps; we live on Kuleana lands. They made me feel that we did not exist. They placed us in camps; they misspelled our name; they made me feel that we were not important enough to even be considered.

“It is not just about me or my family. It’s about the whole community. We all need answers. How can we prevent this from happening again?”

“Second fire in seven years and still undetermined,” Kapu said matter-of-fact.