Thursday, January 30, 2003

A firefighter in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park watches as lava burns a new path through a lama tree forest this week. Newly built firebreaks and the relative resistance of this kind of forest to flames have prevented a conflagration.

Lava field fire crews
struggle to protect forest

About 40 mainland firefighters cut
breaks to save sacred lama
trees and native birds

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> Forty mainland firefighters are cutting a second line of defense in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park against fires started by lava flows from Kilauea volcano, the park announced.

The effort is a continuation of work under way since November that has restricted fires to the immediate vicinity of lava flows, said park spokeswoman Mardie Lane. The result has been the protection of a lowland rain forest characterized primarily by lama trees, a wood considered sacred in Hawaiian culture, she said.

An earlier crew of about 40 mainland firefighters arrived shortly before Christmas to spell local firefighters, said park Fire Management Officer Jack Minassian. During their stay, they cut firebreaks relatively close to lava flow areas, which extend from the 2,300-foot elevation downhill.

Last week, the former crew was sent home and a new crew of 40 arrived from Yosemite National Park, Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area and Mendocino National Forest, Lane said. They will be cutting a 2-mile-long firebreak up and down the hill as a second line of defense, Minassian said.

The cause of concern has been a series of ebbing and flowing lava movements since May called the Mother's Day Flow.

The lava has occasionally moved into forest or brush land igniting fires.

The Kupukupu fire started May 16 and over a month destroyed 3,660 acres of native vegetation in the park.

The Lepo Ahi Complex fire started Nov. 6. It has not raced out of control because lama and other plants tend to be fire-resistant, Lane said. But firefighters are aware that could change as the lava flows change.

If fire were to destroy the lama forest, the area would turn into a "weed patch," said park Resource Management Chief Tim Tunison.

Non-native plants tend to grow much more quickly than natives, replacing them in a burn area, he said. Such a fire would also destroy the habitat of native birds in the area.

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