Residents with garden hoses assisted a firefighter along a power line maintenance road while helping fight a wildfire in Waikoloa on the Big Island yesterday. Federal authorities issued a disaster declaration yesterday for the spreading fire that consumed more than 25,000 acres.

Big Isle residents
to return after fire

The 25,000-acre blaze causes
heavy smoke damage

WAIKOLOA, Hawaii » Hawaii County officials hoped to let residents of Waikoloa Village in West Hawaii return to their homes today, after a 25,000-acre grassland fire forced the evacuation of two thirds of the town yesterday.


Returning residents were expected to find extensive smoke damage, but no homes were burned and no one was injured, officials said.

The fire of unknown origin was reported at 2:17 p.m. Monday in the upper Lalamilo area near Waimea. It burned downslope and toward the 2,200-home Waikoloa Village, said fire Chief Darryl Oliveira.

The fire jumped several fire breaks and ran along the mauka edge of the town, then jumped across the main mauka-makai Waikoloa Road about 1:30 p.m. yesterday before being stopped.

All of Waikoloa above Paniolo Drive, more than two thirds of the town, was ordered evacuated about 1:40 p.m.

"Oh, my God, it's crazy," said a taxi driver who gave her name only as Bea.

Contacted by cell phone three hours after the evacuation, 15 miles downwind from the fire, Bea was driving on Queen Kaahumanu Highway. Although the sea would normally be easily visible a mile across lava rock fields, she said she couldn't see the water because the smoke was so thick there.

"It's tremendous," she said.

In the village, just before she left, she was coughing from the smoke, watching flames eat through grass just across the street from her company.

County Civil Defense reported at 5:15 p.m. that traffic was backed up seven miles on the highway as officials kept both the lowland Kaahumanu junction and the upland entry to the town closed.

Mayor Harry Kim, taking over direction of Civil Defense, tried to reopen the Kaahumanu entry at 6:30 p.m. but smoke remained too thick. The town remained closed through the night.

Mayoral aide Janet Snyder said 60 cars carrying an undetermined number of people took shelter at Waikoloa Elementary School, a makai portion of the village deemed safe from the flames. The village golf course was also designated as an emergency evacuation site although no one used it.

The Hilton Waikoloa Village hotel, five miles downslope from Waikoloa town, opened its ballroom as a shelter for evacuees, said American Red Cross representative Barney Sheffield. But at 7:15 p.m., traffic on Kaahumanu Highway remained so bad that Red Cross personnel had arrived to staff it, he said.

Four helicopters were used to fight the fire, two from Hawaii County and two private ones, drawing water from "frog pond" portable water storage devices and from water hazards on the village golf course, Chief Oliveira said.

Twenty other units from the Fire Department, eight bulldozers, as many as eight water tankers, and two military fire fighting vehicles, all from a half dozen agencies, were fighting the fire, Oliveira said.

Close to 100 firefighters were battling the blaze, said fire Capt. Felix Asia at a mobile command post.

At Gov. Linda Lingle's request, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a declaration of disaster for the fire, allowing federal reimbursement for up to 75 percent of the cost of fighting it.

Much of the land covered by the fire had been used for live firing of military ammunition during training of troops during World War II, but the area closest to the village had been swept by a decontamination team in the last year.

No munitions were set off by the heat of the fire, although one unexploded piece of ammunition was found and isolated, Oliveira said.

The 25,000 acres burned exceeded any Big Island fire that historical researcher Kent Warschauer could find. Previous large ones were 20,000 acres at Pohakuloa Training Area in 1994 and another 20,000 acres at Puuwaawaa Ranch in 1985, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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