Army to set fire in Makua
The controlled fire is needed to finish a review of the valley and to reduce pests, officials say
Army officials plan today to light the first of two controlled brush fires this week in Makua Military Reservation, a move they say is needed to finish historical and archaeological assessments of the Leeward Oahu valley.
Gayland Enriques, fire chief of U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, last night said there are safeguards in place to prevent a recurrence of what happened in July 2003, when about 2,100 acres were scorched instead of the planned 500 acres. The fire destroyed at least 71 endangered plants and 150 acres of designated critical habitat.
Enriques said the plan is to clear 86 of the 4,856 acres controlled by the Army not only to help with the assessment of the historical sites, but also to control the population of Guinea grass and haole koa shrubs in the area. He said the area, which already has been treated by herbicide, is about a mile into the valley from Farrington Highway.
Enriques said the Army hopes to complete the controlled burn tomorrow, pending wind and weather conditions. If not, the Army will try again on March 22-23, he said.
"We hope to do this at least once a year, to reduce the fuel load in the valley," Enriques said.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly said last month that the controlled burns are needed to finish an environmental impact statement that was supposed to have been completed in October 2004.
David Henkin, the attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represents a group opposing the Army's continued use of Makua Valley, said he has "serious questions whether the Army has to do any type of burning to finish the required environmental impact statement."
Henkin said the Army is required only to inform his client, Malama Makua, when the Army wants to use live ammunition in the valley.
"History has shown, whether intentional or not, fires have gotten out of control in the valley. We are hopeful that nothing bad will happen," Henkin said.
Army studies have found that there were more than 100 Hawaiian cultural sites in the valley. Some native Hawaiians consider the valley sacred, and it is also the home to more than 30 endangered plants and four animals -- the kahuli tree snail, elepaio, Hawaiian hoary bat, and pueo or Hawaiian owl.
Enriques said that 40 federal, Army and forestry firefighters will be on site today, as well as four helicopters. Two of the helicopters are Army UH-60 Black Hawks, each equipped with buckets capable of carrying 660 gallons of water.
In addition to the Black Hawks, there will be two civilian helicopters on site, equipped with buckets that can carry 340 gallons of water. Two more Army UH-60 Black Hawks with 66-gallon buckets will be on standby alert at Wheeler Army Airfield, Enriques added.
Fires, set by soldiers firing rifles, mortars or other ordnance or deliberately done to eradicate the valley of noxious weeds, have been a major problem in the valley.
The Army was forced to stop firing live ammunition in the valley in 2001 until it completed a complex environmental study. However, it reached an agreement with Malama Makua, a Leeward Oahu citizens activist group, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to allow the use of live ammunition to prepare soldiers and Marines who were going to be deployed to Afghanistan.
Last month, federal Judge Susan Mollway, who was concerned about the Army's progress in completing the required environmental study, rejected a second request from the Army to allow live-fire training in Makua for the more than 7,000 soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division deploying to Iraq this summer.