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Firefighters battle wildfires amid very dry conditions in West Maui

By BY LOUISE ROCKETT - | Oct 15, 2020

Large wildfires broke out in Kahana on Sept. 30 and Kahoma Valley (pictured) on Oct. 6. PHOTO BY MAUI FIRE DEPARTMENT.

WEST MAUI — We’re well into dry season, West Maui. Our mauka lands are kindling-brown from the Pali to Kapalua, and two brush fires have ravaged our hillsides since the end of September.

As we don’t have water in our reservoirs, it looks like we’re going to have to hold our breath until the winter rains relieve us in November.

Kimo Falconer, president of MauiGrown Coffee, witnessed the southerly course of the first fire on Sept. 30.

According to Falconer, it was a close call.

The fire started at 10:57 a.m. directly above the West Maui-Kapalua Airport, about a mile north of Honokowai Stream.

“It was random for it to happen in the middle of nowhere,” the former Pioneer Mill agronomist/department head advised.

“It came across Honokowai Stream and climbed up to our side,” he said, towards the Kaanapali Estate coffee fields.

“At 9:30 at night,” he continued, “the fire was still burning up there, and I was thinking this is it. The wind was blowing strong trades. The fire would have burned all the way to Lahaina — there was so much fuel. It could have been terrible; I mean, unbelievably terrible.”

Falconer described what challenged the course of the conflagration.

“I’ve never seen it happen like that before. I swear, I was standing right there where I was waiting for it to come right over the edge, and the wind shifted to the north.”

“You know me,” he told the Lahaina News, “working with sugar cane and cane fires for 20-plus years, you understand fire and wind, and you know how to plan for it. To see that happen — the wind shift out of the blue, just like that — that was a miracle; it saved everything.”

Falconer is worried.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘West Maui is not having a drought.’ “

“Nonsense,” he exclaimed, “we are having dry years that are on historical levels of dryness. The Honokowai Stream has zero flow. I have never seen that before.”

County officials agreed: “We remain under drought conditions, and West Maui and Upcountry residents are required to conserve water for all but essential uses.”

According to the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, drought conditions have spread throughout the island chain; and, with the lack of rainfall, the situation is critical.

Falconer further stressed: “With no reservoir available, if a fire happens again in Kahana, they are going to have to pull the water out of the ocean.”

Kanaha Valley farmer Hans Michael is also concerned.

He was an eyewitness to the second, potentially serious, somewhat short-lived fire that occurred at 10 a.m. on Oct. 6 in Kahoma Valley.

“We saw it come up; and then we go look from the Lahainaluna High School piggery. It look like somebody made fire someplace,” he said.

Michael observed challenges fire department personnel had battling the blaze.

“You could not shoot water with the tanker, because you cannot get near it on the cliff side. There are no adequate routes to go to there.

“Crater Lake is bone dry. The biggest wrong is lack of water to put out the fire. We don’t have any water storage for that matter,” Michael explained.

Giving credit where it was due, the former Pioneer Mill employee conceded, “I think the helicopter has done an excellent job with the help of the fire department.”

The cause of both blazes is unknown. There are conflicting reports emanating from the community.

Persons wanting more detail about the fires (than the Maui Fire Department press release offers) may request a Fire Incident Report via https://www.mauicounty.gov/1559/Fire-Incident-Report-Request-Form.

Following the below average rainfall projections in October, relief from the dry weather is predicted. With a weak La Nina now underway, above average rainfall is anticipated from late fall through the winter.