GARY T. KUBOTA / GKUBOTA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lawmakers are looking at the impact of brush fires statewide, including this one at Launiupoko in West Maui that burned some 2,600 acres, including two homes.
Brush blazes stoke fire for stricter laws
LAUNIUPOKO, Maui » State Rep. Angus McKelvey stands near the border of his neighbor's home overlooking charred hillsides and points to an area where a wildfire came within 20 feet of the house in West Maui.
Information about the Wildland Urban Interface Grant is available at www.dofaw.net, under the heading "Forest and Wildland Fires."
The deadline for applying for a 2008-09 grant is Sept. 7.
Denise Laitinen, the state "fire-wise" coordinator who has assisted communities in grant writing, can be reached at 281-3497.
"It came right up into your face," McKelvey (D, Olowalu-Kapalua) told several members of the state House Finance Committee last week during a site visit.
The brush fire burned 2,600 acres including two homes and was extinguished about a month ago, but people are still talking about it and other recent brush fires, igniting interest on the Valley Isle and the other islands.
Dry conditions throughout the state have turned brush lands into kindling for wildfires, especially in areas formerly used to grow sugar cane that have been sold to absentee landowners.
The brush fire, which began in Olowalu, jumped up and down hillsides from one large property to the next for about three miles before state and county firefighters were able to contain it. Traffic was blocked, and residents and visitors, cut off from homes and hotels, were forced into emergency shelters.
House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa-Poamoho) said the West Maui fire lends credence to what McKelvey has been saying about making landowners more responsible for maintaining their property.
McKelvey, who describes some large parcels of former Amfac sugar cane land as "weed farms," is looking into whether more enforcement or legislation is needed to protect the public from wildfires.
One of the bills being developed by McKelvey is to give fire chiefs more authority to control the use of fireworks, including a ban in drought-stricken areas. While fireworks did not start the Olowalu-Launuipoko fire, they have been blamed for several recent fires on Maui.
On Oahu, fires linked to fireworks totaled 78 last year.
McKelvey also said he also wants to improve communications so that motorists can know more quickly the traffic conditions in West Maui.
He said an emergency transportation plan should also be developed that would employ vessels at Lahaina Harbor and light airplanes at Kapalua Airport as temporary passenger transports.
Maui Fire Chief Carl Kaupalolo said the brush fire might have been contained had winds been only 10 to 15 mph. But they were gusting from 25 to 50 mph at times during the blaze.
Kaupalolo said firefighters saw the fires jump as far as 100 yards.
Some fire officials, including Kaupalolo, said one of the ways communities can increase their protection from wildfires is by participating in a federal wild-land fire protection program provided through the state forestry division.
Through the program, communities may apply for a Wildland Urban Interface Grant that can help to provide a protection plan and provide money for firebreaks, zones around subdivisions that are kept free of brush.
Big Island Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira said the program was instrum'ental in helping the community of Waikoloa protect itself from a major wild-land fire in August 2005.
"If it wasn't for the community aggressively working in getting the grant for the program, that fire would have impacted the community and residences," Oliveira said.
State fire management officer Wayne Ching, who administers the program, said several communities have received grants totaling more than $1 million, including Newtown Estates and the Nature Conservancy in Waianae on Oahu, and Anahola and Kokee on Kauai.
The Maui Coastal Land Trust in Waihee received a $121,000 grant this year.
Ching said besides funding firebreaks, the program helps to provide workshops and a guide on how to develop a wildfire protection plan with an emphasis on community involvement.
Ching said counties have limited resources, and firefighters can only do so much to fight wildfires such as the one at Launiupoko.
"You folks really need to be more vigilant about protecting the homes," he said.