CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
An Army helicopter practiced a water drop before a burn planned at Makua Valley yesterday. After test fires, the Army put off the shrub-clearing operation until March 22.
Army postpones fire at Makua range
Wet brush frustrates efforts to clear parts of the training area
The Army has postponed for two weeks two scheduled controlled burns of 372 acres in the Makua Military Reservation.
Gayland Enriques, fire chief of U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, said foliage in the south and north ends of the 4,856-acre training range was too wet yesterday and frustrated several attempts to start the blaze.
The Army had hoped to clear 86 acres in the south end of Makua Valley yesterday and an additional 286 acres in the north end.
However, the entire process was postponed until March 22 after small test fires indicated that the shrubbery was too wet from last week's heavy rains. Today's burn was also canceled because of expected rain, he said.
"It's a disappointment from my perspective, because of the time, effort and coordination that has gone into it," Enriques acknowledged yesterday afternoon.
More than 12 firefighting vehicles, 60 federal and Army firefighters, and six helicopters had been placed on alert since dawn yesterday morning.
Enriques said shifting winds during the control burn in 2003 resulting in a blaze that raged out of control on the north end of the valley, scorching 2,100 acres instead of the intended 500.
The burn planned for yesterday -- one that the fire chief hopes to perform annually -- is needed to comply with a 2001 court settlement with Malama Makua that calls on the Army to:
» Clear 3,300 feet of unexploded ordnance from Farrington Highway into the training area.
» Provide access to cultural and historical areas in Makua.
» Help archaeologists complete an assessment of the area as part of an environmental impact statement that was due in 2004. The Army says that environmental study will be completed this spring.
The acreage on the north side of Makua Valley is the same area where a control or prescribed burn went out of control three years ago, said Enriques, who as "burn chief" was in charge of the fire operations.
Yesterday's controlled burn would have been the first since the 2003 blaze. Since the summer of 2004 there has been no live ammunition fired in the Leeward Oahu valley, one of the major causes of fire.
Fire is greatest threat to the more than 100 endangered plants and animals that live in a valley some Hawaiians consider to be sacred.
He said the two locations had been sprayed with herbicide to kill the Guinea grass and hale koa shrubbery in the area to make it easier to burn. All the areas surrounding the two burn areas were cut to less than 6 inches, Enriques said, to provide less fuel to the blaze.
Enriques said the Army has strict rules -- wind speed, wind direction, fuel (shrubbery) moisture content, temperature and humidity -- that must be met before a prescribed burn is allowed.
To start the control burns military personnel use diesel and gas torches.
Also employed was aerial ignition where pingpong-size balls filled with small amounts of fire accelerant were dropped from a helicopter. Flying over the width of the designated burn area, Enriques said a helicopter dropped the balls in a north-to-south strip.
However, even after dropping 75 balls during two strip runs, the Army gave up. "It is just too wet," said Enriques.
Only a 20-foot section along the outside perimeter of the designated burn area had been cleared by 2:15 p.m.