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Saturday, August 5, 2000



State’s biggest
banyan bears heavy
fire damage

Auntie Sarah, 88, has
looked after the Kauai
banyan most of her life



By Anthony Sommer
Kauai correspondent

NAWILIWILI, Kauai -- A "major portion" of Hawaii's largest Chinese banyan tree was destroyed in a fire Thursday evening -- and as of yesterday, no one had the heart to tell Auntie Sarah.

The Fire Department simply classified it as a 2-acre brush fire adjacent to Kauai High School and Banyan Harbor, a condo complex neighboring the huge tree. "Some of Auntie Sarah's trees were damaged," they noted.

"My heart just dropped when I saw it this morning," Malcolm Kailikea said yesterday. "My mother doesn't know about it yet. I haven't told her."

His mother, Auntie Sarah Kailikea, 88, has cared for the tree most of her life. It once was the centerpiece of the Kauai Menehune Garden, which she and her late husband, Melvin, operated as a tourist attraction for decades until it closed in 1992.

The area has been closed to the public since then and the tree isn't visible from the road. But if you mention "the exceptional tree" (a county legal designation akin to being on the National Register of Historic Places) to just about anyone who lives on Kauai, they know you're talking about Auntie Sarah's tree.

"It's my baby," she said about the century-old tree -- then 110 feet high and 250 feet wide -- in an interview last year.

The tree at that time had more than 1,000 air roots. Auntie Sarah calculated that each air root grows about seven inches every month. "Feed it and it just grows and grows," she said.

The tree was planted some time between 1890 and 1895 by Grove Farm sugar plantation founder George N. Wilcox.

Auntie Sarah and her husband, who died in 1989, led a successful campaign in 1976 to have the county declare it an "exceptional" tree, which gives it legal protection against purposeful damage.

Less successful was an attempt to persuade the state to buy the land and maintain it as a state park.

The slightest hint of developer encroachment on the tree has sent Auntie Sarah storming the county building armed with stacks of legal documents. But there was nothing she could do to stop a brush fire.

"It's all burned. It's like Hurricane Iniki all over again," said Malcolm Kailikea, who hadn't yet measured exactly how much of the tree was lost. "I know eventually it will grow back, but it looks devastated."

Deputy County Engineer Ian Costa, who for years has been the county's unofficial liaison with the often feisty Auntie Sarah, said the exceptional designation only protects it against intentional damage.

"It's a pretty resilient old tree," Costa said. "It really got whacked in the hurricane and it came back. Hopefully it will grow back again."



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