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South Kona may see some relief over weekend

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Contributing Editor

South Kona residents who have suffered the effects of smoke from at least three wildfires during the last three weeks may see some relief over the weekend.

Crews and equipment from the National Parks Service at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and state Department of Forestry and Wildlife spent Friday battling a stubborn 1,800-acre fire at Kealakekua Heritage Ranch.

An additional 10 firefighters joined the Fire Department, ranch crews and land owner personnel. That put the total number of firefighters on the scene at more than 50.

DOFAW and the National Park Service are now providing: two fire engines, one tanker, two brush trucks, two specialized off-road gama trucks with fire fighting equipment, and three choppers, including two county helicopters and one privately owned chopper.

County, private, federal, and state resources will be working to extinguish active burning, as well as mopping up hot spots and maintaining a secure perimeter. However, officials cautioned, it will take at least 24 hours to see what additional progress can be made against the fire.

Fire break perimeters have been widened and are now accessible to the larger fire-fighting vehicles.

South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford said the fire is particularly difficult to knock down for a number of factors.

“This is a forest fire. It’s always been a forest fire,” Ford said Friday afternoon. “It’s just completely inaccessible.”

Ford said crews are reporting the fire is burning at ground level and through gulches and ravines, fueled by dry tinder and brush, while the tree tops are relatively free of flame. The dry ground cover is allowing the fire to spread and the green undergrowth is kicking up the enormous amounts of smoke.

Crews were unable to get to the fire because of the rough terrain and lack of roads, she said. The fire break is essentially serving as a pathway for crews to reach the area.

Also, because the fire is at ground level, helicopter drops have been ineffective. Not enough water trickles down through the thick canopy, Ford said.

Three choppers have been making runs between the ocean and the 4,000-foot level. Each trip takes a full 15 minutes. The weather and winds are unpredictable and make flying dangerous.

Neither is dropping fire retardant an option, Ford said. There is not a suitable plane in the state nor is there any fire retardant, she said, plus all it would do is coat the tree tops, which are not on fire anyway.

Ford said the National Parks and state crews determined the county Fire Department and Civil Defense Agency had few options.

“That report told us what we have been doing is the best we can do,” Ford said. “Our Fire Department has done everything humanly possible to extinguish this fire. They really are busting their butts. They are really good guys.”

She said she realizes the Fire Department must protect lives first, even their own.

“That must come ahead of everything else, absolutely,” she said. “We cannot afford to lose one life. We cannot afford to lose one firefighter.”

Ford, who suffers with asthma, said she shares concerns about residents’ health.

“I live down there, so I’m right in it with everybody else. It really has exacerbated peoples’ respiratory problems. It’s been so awful,” she said. “Everything smells horribly. Your clothes, your hair, furniture, car upholstery. It gets everywhere and you cannot get away from it.”

Ford said she noticed the smoke has drifted as far as Hilo.

“As I drove into Hilo this week, I could just see it sitting pooled over the whole town,” she said.

The fire, originally reported mid-morning Sunday Dec. 27,  has spread to Bishop Estate and Kamehameha Schools land. It is located about 7 miles mauka of Kealakekua.

Crews will remain on scene on around the clock until the fire is no longer a threat. No injuries have been reported and no structures have been threatened.

Currently, there has been no reported cause of the blaze.

“That will be the first thing to look at once we get this thing out,” Ford said. “Then it’s time for all the reviewing.”

Other fires

Hokukano Ranch – 1,400 acres – Considered extinguished, some root burning being monitored

The fire broke out Dec. 17 and burned more than 1,400 acres. Although it is considered extinguished, some roots still are smoldering, Ford said. Ranch hands remain on the scene and are monitoring the area closely.

Yee Hop Ranch – 25 acres – Extinguished

Reported Friday, Dec. 25, the fire burned about 25 acres. It had jumped the fire break Monday, Dec. 28, but was contained again by that evening. Fire officials report that blaze is out.

Precautionary health measures urged

The state Department of Health continues to urge residents to take precautionary measures due to elevated levels of fine particulates (PM2.5) caused by brush fires.

The DOH is continuing to monitor the PM2.5 levels in four communities: Kona, Hilo, Mountain View, and Pahala.

The PM2.5 level recently recorded over a 24-hour period at the DOH air monitoring station located in Kona exceeded the National Ambient Air Quality Standard. Particulate levels continue to be elevated in Kona and are expected to improve as tradewinds return.

A list of exceedances of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards can be viewed at the Clean Air Branch Web site: http://hawaii.gov/health/environmental/air/cab/index.html

Elevated levels of PM2.5 can cause breathing problems in individuals, especially those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis. If you have respiratory conditions and live or work in an area being impacted by smoke or vog, consider taking precautionary measures.

The DOH offers the following guidelines:

* Stay indoors and close your windows and doors.

* Check that your air conditioner or air purifier is working properly, change filters if necessary.

* If you take medication, make sure you have an adequate supply and use them as directed by your physician. Contact your physician if you need more medication and get clear instructions of what to do if your lung condition suddenly worsens.

* Do not smoke and avoid second-hand smoke.

* Avoid people who have colds and other lung infections and wash your hands thoroughly.

* Get plenty of rest and limit physical exertion.

* Drink plenty of fluids to loosen mucus. Warm beverages seem to work best.

* If possible leave the affected area.

While these suggestions are intended primarily for persons with respiratory or chronic lung disease, they are also useful for healthy persons during air pollution episodes such as particulates dust, brush fires, firework smoke, or volcanic haze.

For further information regarding air quality contact the Clean Air Branch at 586-4200.

If you wish to obtain additional information on respiratory health contact the American Lung Association of Hawaii at 537-5966 or visit www.ala-hawaii.org

One Response to “South Kona may see some relief over weekend”

  1. HenryHO says:

    We all greatly appreciate the brave and dedicated hard work of our firefighters. No one doubts their commitment or the difficult nature of these fires. Nevertheless these fires have been declared “out” or “contained” three times since 17 December 2009. After burning for more than three weeks, it seems we need more resources and/or expertise. If the resources don’t exist within the State, go out side the State. Request assistance from the Military or western States that have vast experience in dealing with remote fires. There are probably several mainland firefighting experts who’d love to leave their frigid environment and help to extinguish these fires. Or, will we wait till Hilo or the National Park feels the effects of these fires?

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