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Firefighters battle blaze on difficult forest terrain


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POSTED: Wednesday, September 02, 2009

KAUNAKAKAI, Molokai » State and county firefighters appeared to have a brush fire under control near residential areas in central Molokai yesterday but were continuing to battle its spread into difficult mountain terrain.

Threatened were the watersheds of Makakupaia State Forest and the Kamakou Preserve, an area where hundreds of rare native plant, animal and insect species live.

Ed Misaki, director of Molokai programs for the Nature Conservancy, a partner in protecting Kamakou Preserve, said the fire is burning in sectors mostly inaccessible to firefighters on foot or in trucks.

“;Helicopters are essential to douse the fire,”; he said.

The firefighting will receive aerial reinforcements today when the Hawaii National Guard is expected to provide two Chinook helicopters to make water drops, supplementing those that have already been making drops.

The Guard copters were requested by state Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Laura Thielen, who made a helicopter survey over the forest yesterday with Lt. Gov. James Aiona.

;[Preview]  Molokai Firecrews Race Against The Clock
 

The weather has now moved the brushfire to a forest reserve above Kaunakakai and has firecrews fighting to contain the fire.

Watch ]

 

“;The terrain up there is not that accessible,”; Aiona said, adding that from what he could see, the fire was out of control in the forest. “;It is spreading into conservation areas and forest areas, and this is a concern,”; he said.

Misaki said the preserve has hundreds of plant and animal species that are endemic to Hawaii and found nowhere else in the world. He said if fire destroys native forests, alien species easily take over.

“;Hawaiian systems are not adapted to fire,”; he said.

State forestry official Glenn Shishido said the blaze burned an estimated 360 to 400 acres of state forest land at the 3,000- to 3,500-foot level.

Stands of pine trees in the preserve were also burned, but the fire had not yet reached areas where native plant species grow, the Nature Conservancy said.

Shishido said the direction of the fire remained unpredictable, and county firefighters were continuing to set up firebreaks in case the blaze runs downhill toward homes in Kawela.

Wind direction was variable yesterday, blowing one way, then another, creating a haze above the mountain ridges, he said.

The fire has scorched an estimated 7,800 acres in central Molokai, coming within less than 5 feet of Jennifer Spires' home at Puili Place. Spires said she smelled something as she awoke Sunday and saw a pinkish orange out her window. “;It was really scary.”;

Kawika Crivello, who lives on Pano Place, said when he was stirred out of bed at 4 a.m. Sunday, he saw a “;wall of fire”; coming down the hillside, along with dense smoke. “;You couldn't see 10 feet in front of you,”; he said.

Shirley Rawlins, who lives on nearby Pano Place, said she has experienced brush fires in the past, but the flames from this fire have been the most intense. That might be due partly to a dry summer, she said.

“;Fortunately, we had good firemen,”; she said.

Shishido said better maintenance of the roads serving as firebreaks in some areas enables firefighters easier access to battle the blaze.

At Kalamaula, firefighter Herrod Lokahi walked across charred areas looking for hot spots, including trees whose roots might be smoldering beneath the ground.

Smoke rose from holes. “;If you find a hole, you just shoot it and fill it with water,”; he said.

Fire officials said the fire's origin remained under investigation, but several residents said they saw the blaze start at about noon Saturday in an area known as “;ranch camp,”; mauka of Kalamaula.