Niki Lockhart knows all about O'ahu's worst-ever brushfire season. As a military police officer, she's been one of the first on the scene at a dozen or more Leeward blazes in this season of more than 700 fires.
But earlier this month, the fires struck close to home, and Lockhart was forced to flee her Ko Olina townhouse even as a wall of flames and thick smoke raced to within feet of her lanai.
"I've never seen a brushfire spread so fast — the heat was extremely intense and there was tons of smoke," said Lockhart, 31, who said firefighters managed to keep the flames from reaching her home, but not before destroying hedges next to it.
The Aug. 6 brushfire that threatened homes in Ko Olina and Honokai Hale was one of a series that frightened residents and taxed the limits of the Honolulu Fire Department; federal and military fire departments; and other forces.
Honolulu Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi said this year will go down as the worst ever for O'ahu brushfires.
"We've got about 700-plus fires so far, compared to something like 550 last year," he said. "And that's all of last year — we've still got four months to go."
The toll has been significant: Some 7,000 acres of O'ahu have gone up in smoke in the first eight months of 2005.
On several instances, half of the Honolulu Fire Department's workforce was drawn into fighting blazes on the Leeward Coast, leaving precious few resources available to handle emergencies elsewhere on the island.
It's also been an expensive year: Overtime, extra fuel and meal costs, and the price of repairing vehicles that have been jostled over rough terrain all have taken a toll.
HFD estimates that the department has spent a minimum of $12,000 to $14,000 so far on overtime pay alone. Its 1,080 firefighters are weary — particularly those in Leeward O'ahu.
The impact is also environmental: Conservationists say that with each brushfire, O'ahu's unique landscape has changed a little, with native plants and wildlife giving way to invasive species and muddy runoff polluting ocean reefs.
A fire this month that raged in the Nanakuli valley was so extreme that O'ahu will apply for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for 75 percent of the costs. State Civil Defense's plans and operations officer, Vic Gustafson, said it's the first time O'ahu has done that for a fire.
Gustafson said he eventually will be receiving cost figures from federal, state and city agencies involved in the fire, including O'ahu Civil Defense and State Civil Defense; the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and National Guard; the state Department of Land and Natural Resources; HFD; Honolulu police; Emergency Medical Services; city Transportation Services, and Parks and Recreation.
Much of the effort has been borne by Leeward firefighters. Leonardi said the department has tried to give those firefighters a break by sending crews from Honolulu to assist those in rural West O'ahu.
"They're the heroes out there," he said. "What's good about it is that they know the terrain. But they need a break. So, we've been able to bring guys in from town to fight brushfires and give the country guys a rest."
Still, he said there have been times this summer when the department nearly reached the breaking point, known as "Level 3 manning," when off-duty firefighters have to be called in.
"We haven't got to that point, yet, but that's been because we've got FedFire and other departments helping us," he said.
"Without FedFire and the military's assistance, the fires (at Nanakuli) would still be burning. Some of these fires have gone into the forests, and the Department of Land and Natural Resources comes out with their group and they bring in a helicopter that they pay for."
More than half of this year's fires have been along the Wai'anae Coast. Authorities believe that most were deliberately set, said HPD District 8's commander, Maj. Michael Tamashiro.
The two biggest were in Nanakuli. All seven brushfire-related arrests — four juveniles and three adults — were made in this area.
The latest, a 27-year-old woman, was picked up Aug. 7, the day after the Ko Olina/ Honokai Hale fire. Police were acting on a tip from a witness who provided a license number and said the woman had been seen near the fire with two homemade firebombs.
The Nanakuli woman, Willolyn B.K. Jose, was arrested on suspicion of possession of a prohibited weapon and released pending further investigation. Thursday, she was arrested again on a federal warrant and charged with two counts of possessing and manufacturing a destructive device, police said.
Jose, who faces up to 20 years in prison, pleaded not guilty and was being held without bond.
Just keeping track of the blazes has been daunting.
Wayne Ching, state protection forester for the Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and Pat Costales, the forestry division's O'ahu branch manager, traveled from one burned-out area to another over the weekend, mapping the perimeters of some of the larger brushfires in Central and Leeward O'ahu.
The sheer number of burned areas seemed remarkable to the forestry division workers.
"Just black splotches here and there throughout the landscape," said Costales, who has also examined some of the burns by air. "The preponderance are on the Leeward Coast."
Some of the splotches, particularly along Farrington Highway, are less than acre. Firefighters got there quickly enough to stop them short.
Others spread across the landscape, threatening homes or native habitat, endangering firefighters and their equipment, and clogging the air with smoke. A Wai'anae blaze claimed 1,100 acres.
Ching and Costales mapped out a 1,800-acre burn from the first Nanakuli fire in July and 2,850 acres for the blaze that struck Nanakuli this month, licking into a forest preserve where rare plants grow.
In Makua, 250 acres burned. The Aug. 6 fire at Ko Olina/ Honokai Hale blackened 125 acres before firefighters routed it.
"There was just a whole lot of black out there," Ching said. "Burned fences, that sort of thing."
Rain that fell Thursday is good, he said, but only if it continues to fall as a soft mist. Anything harder will churn the dirt beneath those plants killed by fire, washing mud into the ocean and wreaking havoc on two ecosystems.
Over the weekend, Ching said, tiny sprigs of green were shooting up through the blackness.
But that's guinea grass, said Pauline Sato, O'ahu program director for the Nature Conservancy. The invasive species was introduced in the mid-1800s as a failed experiment at developing a food source for cattle.
After each burn, she said, the guinea grass grows in thicker, choking out native plants and providing fuel for the next years' fires.
As for folks living in the area most affected, wildfire is a way of life. They don't like it any more that the road closures. And it irks them that someone's starting the fires. But they deal with it.
Every year or two the fields dry up and catch on fire, they say. This year, it's just happened more.
Melvin Joseph, whose home and M&M Auto Mechanic business are on a remote section of rural Wai'anae Valley Road, said the field near his place caught fire three times in one week before firefighters doused it completely on Aug. 20.
Firefighters protected his place as they always do, he said. The fire didn't affect his business noticeably, he added, but the house smelled like smoke for a day or two.
"It always goes away," he said.
Muriel Ioane, who watched the flames come too close to her house for comfort on Aug. 20, has seen it all before.
"This wasn't the worst," she said. "The worst was one about a decade ago. The whole mountain went up. We were surrounded by fire."
Still, Ioane agreed with Fire Chief Leonardi that trying to keep the fires at bay through "controlled brushfires" is much too risky. And it would cost too much to bulldoze firebreaks around the 104-acre spread.
"We have no plans to move," she said. "We're heirs of this place since John Enos II. That's my great-great-grandpa. Our family has had it for 999 years."