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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Volcanoes park fire sweeps 700 acres

Advertiser Staff

Federal and county firefighters are battling a wildland fire that has consumed more than 700 acres of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park land above Ka'u and is threatening rare plants.

The Kipuka Pepeiao fire, visible from the Hawai'i Belt Road near the 43-mile marker, was burning at the 1,680-foot elevation near Pepeiao Cabin. It was reported at about 8 p.m. Sunday but was initially mistaken for a volcanic eruption, with callers reporting "a half-mile-long curtain of fire."

From the highway, rangers described what they saw as an "orange wall of light and smoke" approximately two miles from the highway near the southwest rift of the Kilauea volcano, according to park officials.

A reconnaissance flight early yesterday morning confirmed it was a wind-driven grass fire.

"We're using all available resources to contain and suppress this fire," said fire commander Greg Herbst. "Strong winds increase the fire's potential to spread makai into the coastal lowlands and run east and west."

Twenty National Park Service and seven county firefighters were on duty yesterday, while three helicopters doused flames with water from "frog pond" near the Belt Road.

Park officials report the fire burned native 'ohi'a, pukiawe (black-eyed Susan) and 'ulei (a rose-like shrub) and is nearing endangered populations of the red-flowered 'ohai, a rare shrub in the pea family.

Motorists are urged to use caution driving through the area.

"We want to assure our neighboring communities that we are on the attack, we are fighting this fire aggressively," said Volcanoes Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando.

A 20-member firefighting crew has been called up from Eldorado National Forest in California to assist.

The park has closed Hilina Pali Road at the Mauna Iki trailhead. Mauna Iki Trail and Ka'u Desert trails also are closed.

Although the fire's cause is unknown, a lightning strike ignited a 1988 fire that burned 156 acres in the same remote wilderness area, officials said.