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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 25, 2003

Team effort contains Makua Valley blaze

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

City and federal firefighters, soldiers, and state and federal environmental agencies contained the Makua Valley brush fire yesterday and brought it under control.

"Our strong partnerships with various federal and state agencies were the key elements in successfully containing this fire," said Col. David Anderson, commander of the U.S. Army Garrison, Hawai'i.

Among the 2,000 to 2,900 acres burned were between five and ten acres of a nearby forest preserve, said Patrick Costales, O'ahu branch manager of the state's division of forestry and wildlife.

The fire, ignited this week when Army officials lost control of a "controlled burn" that was set Tuesday, burned into the Kuaokala preserve for a few acres and abutted against the Mokule'ia preserve, but did not burn in, Costales said.

Costales said the preserve's system of trails and roads, which were designed to act as fire breaks, held the blaze back and kept it from doing major harm. The burned acreage, he said, was mostly pine and silver oak trees that had been planted in the late 1970s.

"Most of the sensitive, threatened and endangered species," Costales said, "were on the federal side of the line. Not the state."

The Makua Military Reservation has been the source of disagreement between the Army, which uses the range for live fire training operations, and Leeward Coast residents who oppose the Army's use of a valley containing a diverse range of native plants and animals and thought to contain a number of archeologically important historic sites.

The disagreement reached a settlement shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, when residents and environmentalists agreed to let the Army use the area for a limited number of training missions.

The Army agreed to clear 50 years of unexploded ordnance from the reserve and allow specialists to go in and identify ancient Hawaiian cultural sites. They were in the process of clearing the range, with a 900-acre controlled burn, when winds increased and the fire went out of control.

"That part of it sort of got lost in the smoke and fire," said Troy Griffin, deputy public affairs officer for Schofield's 25th Infantry Division (Light). "We were trying to do something good. We'd really worked hard on this plan (for the controlled burn)," Griffin said. "We believed sincerely that we were not going to have problems."

Army officials on the range at the time said the wind suddenly shifted and spread the flames in the wrong direction with remarkable speed, Griffin said.

David Henkin a lawyer with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund who is representing Malama Makua, expressed doubt about the Army's ability to safely conduct live-fire operations.

Another group, Hui Malama O Makua, joined by other environmental groups, was planning to go to Makua during a scheduled cultural access visit. If access was denied, they planned to protest, said William Aila Jr., a member of the group.

Griffin said more information about the condition of the reserve should be available today.

After the fire was contained and brought under control, Griffin said, soldiers and federal firefighters stayed on to make sure no hot spots flamed up overnight. When the fire has been inactive for 24 hours, teams of biologists and archaeologist will go in to assess the damage.

"We feel bad about the situation," Griffin said. "But we will learn from it and become better stewards of our environment."

Training missions planned for Makua are necessary to assure the 7,000 Schofield soldiers scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in February are properly trained, Griffin said.

"We will learn," Griffin said. "We promise to do better, and we really need that training area."

Staff Writer Vicki Viotti contributed to this report.