COURTESY DAVID BOYLE / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park firefighter Sean Grossman, with hose, filled a 5,000-gallon "frog pond" in the park yesterday. The plastic pool was one of five set up by the park to have water ready in case fire flares up from lava flows. CLICK FOR LARGE
Experts arrive as quakes subside
Rare species threatened by lava flows
HILO » A specialized crew of 10 National Park Service firefighters was due to arrive on the Big Island today as a precaution against Hawaii Volcanoes National Park losing exceptional native forest to fire from lava flows.
The number of small earthquakes, which might signal a new eruption, continued to decline yesterday, suggesting another outbreak of lava is becoming less likely following Tuesday's brief eruption.
But Hawaii Volcanoes ranger Jim Gale said that's not certain. "We really don't know," he said.
Park biologist Rhonda Loh said the stakes are high. Fire started by lava flows in 2003 destroyed 1,000 acres of native forest, she said.
If a new lava outbreak takes place and fails to stop as it did Tuesday, firefighters could prevent vegetation from burning outward from the immediate area of the flows, said fire management officer Joe Molhoek. "We may be able to put it in check," he said.
The special crew, from Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in Northern California, has to be on site because Hawaii is so isolated from outside help, Gale said. It takes 48 hours to get a crew here from the mainland, he said.
The crew's skills include helicopter management, use of pumps and monitoring weather, Molhoek said.
Another skill is sampling the vegetation. A clump of vegetation is collected, weighed, then heated to collect the moisture evaporated off. That tells exactly how much moisture is present as a natural fire deterrent, he said.
Aerial pictures of the lava outbreak location Tuesday show a lot of green tree tops. Those photos fail to show uluhe fern along the ground, Molhoek said.
Uluhe forms dense, extensive mats of vegetation that is green outside but full of dead, often dry material inside the mat.
In recent days, tradewinds have brought light rains in evenings and mornings, keeping the forest damp, Loh said.
Even so, the fire danger is considered "high," a middle danger level on a scale from "low" to "extreme," Molhoek said.
Smoldering tree stumps could start new flames if night rains stop, Loh said.
The main tree in the forest is ohia, but there are also olapa, alani, kolea and others, she said. There are rare lobeliad plants, which have beaked flowers with orange fruit that birds like, she said.
Among the birds are apapane, amakihi and elepaio. High above them, the Hawaiian hawk, io, looks for prey.