Chief suspects arson in 9 fires
Firefighters extinguished five of nine fires that burned more than 2,000 acres on the Big Island yesterday as officials collected clues to their suspicious origins.
The fires started between 3:20 and 4:14 a.m. in the North Kohala and South Kohala districts, officials said.
"We're thinking that all of them were intentionally set just because of the proximity and time of day and the number of fires that occurred all within the span of one hour," said Big Island Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira.
No homes were damaged or were in immediate danger last night, and the estimated 400 residents who were forced to evacuate from Puako were allowed back into their homes by 6 p.m., said Troy Kindred, head of Big Island Civil Defense.
One firefighter sustained injuries from smoke inhalation and was treated at the scene, firefighters said. No one else was injured.
Eight campers from Spencer Beach Park were evacuated to a Red Cross shelter at the Waimea Community Center but were able to retrieve their gear later, a Red Cross news release said.
Officials reopened all the roads in the area.
Five smaller fires were extinguished: a 2-acre fire on Akoni Pule Highway, a fire near Puako, two fires spanning a few hundred square feet on the south side of Waikoloa Road, and a fire on Kawaihae Road.
Fifty county firefighters, 12 volunteers and 16 federal firefighters and state Division of Forestry and Wildlife personnel worked on the fires. Four helicopters assisted, while private owners brought water tankers to help wet down the roadsides, Oliveira said.
Firefighters still were fighting three blazes at 8 p.m. One that started north of Fire Station No. 14 on Queen Kaahumanu Road merged into a nearby fire and burned 1,500 to 1,800 acres, Oliveira said. Firefighters had that fire 50 percent contained last night.
A fire south of Kawaihae Road and mauka of Queen Kaahumanu highway jumped the highway and burned about 600 acres, Oliveira said. It was 50 percent contained.
A third fire on the ocean side of Akoni Pule Highway was still burning about a mile north of Kohala Ranch Road. Firefighters were using bulldozers to complete a firebreak on the north and south flanks, Oliveira said.
Firefighting efforts were hampered by 15 to 20 mph winds in the morning, but the winds died down and humidity increased, aiding firefighters, he said. He expected all the fires to be contained by today.
Oliveira said only one small structure, which appeared to be an outhouse near Spencer Beach Park, was damaged.
Investigators did find evidence -- magazine pages that were possibly used to start one of the fires -- and turned it over to police, Oliveira said.
Kindred said he doubted that the fire starters were copying the California brush fires, some of which authorities believe were purposely started. Kindred said there have been apparent cases of arson earlier this year.
"This is not the first time this has happened," he said, adding that three fires had started at the same time in that area earlier this year.
Officials ask that anyone with information call CrimeStoppers, police or fire investigators.