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

A message carried on the wind

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

In announcing plans to start a "controlled burn" in Makua Valley, the spokesperson for the 25th Infantry Division (Light) and U.S. Army, Hawai'i said, "We are confident that with the safety measures and precautions in place that the burn will go according to plan and will remain contained."

It didn't go according to plan and it didn't remain contained. A "controlled burn" it wasn't.

The plan was to burn only 800 to 900 acres of dry brush. After being whipped up by the wind and jumping firebreak roads, the fire burned out of control for 24 hours across close to 2,500 acres in the valley. Ironically, part of the reason for the "controlled burn" was to prevent uncontrolled brush fires.

Well, that didn't work.

In announcing the plans for the fire, the Army ticked off a list of safety measures they'd have in place: Two Black Hawk helicopters each equipped with huge water buckets which could be filled at two reservoirs in the valley; a 20-person firefighting crew; primary and secondary firebreak lines.

So what happened?

It got windy.

One commander was quoted as saying that the wind changed direction and increased by 30 miles per hour.

After all the talk-talk from the Army about what "good stewards" they are of the sacred valley, how careful they are to protect the endangered plant species in the area, how respectful they are of the archeological sites in Makua, when it came down to it the Army lost control of their own operation. The Army's competence did not match its confidence.

Two years ago, the Army was holding community and media visits to Makua to show off all their safeguards. It was a hard point to argue, but the Army maintained that guns and bullets and trucks would not damage Makua. Not that any doubters changed their minds because of the presentations, but then came 9-11 and a national climate that simply did not allow any sort of criticism of the actions of the U.S. military.

But times are a bit different now. The winds have changed direction. This fire in Makua has again fanned the flames of opposition, and this time, it's very hard for the Army to argue that they will not damage the valley.

Because they just did.

To what extent is not yet known, but it's clear that we can't just take their word for it when they say they're going to be careful.

In the novel "The Whale Rider," which inspired the excellent movie with the same title, author Witi Ihimaera wrote: "Man might carve his moko on the earth, but once he ceases to be vigilant, Nature will take back what man had once achieved to please his vanity."

Maybe the wind that blew in Makua Valley this week did so to make a point — that the prevailing force in Makua will ultimately be the spirit of Makua.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.