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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 15, 2005

O'ahu brushfires surpass 2004 total

Advertiser Staff Writer

Attilio Leonardi


2005: As of yesterday, 576
2004: 569
2003: 982
2002: 599
2001: 630
Source: Honolulu Fire Department

With a spate of seven O'ahu brushfires believed to be deliberately set this week, the Honolulu Fire Department has now responded to more brushfires this year than all of last year and the fire chief is calling for a ban on fireworks sales for the Fourth of July holiday.

Honolulu fire officials said yesterday the department has fought 576 brushfires so far this year compared with 569 for all of 2004. The department is on pace to eclipse the 982 brushfires recorded in 2003, the highest total in five years.

The exact financial cost of fighting the brushfires isn't known but it contributed to the department exceeding its $3.4 million overtime budget for the fiscal year ending June 30 by about $856,000.

"It (the brushfires) doesn't help," Honolulu Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi said.

Leonardi, speaking at a press conference at HFD headquarters, said the spike in the fires has taxed department resources, damaged equipment and contributed to environmental pollution.

He said he will ask the Legislature to ban the sale of fireworks around the Fourth of July, saying he is more convinced than ever of the need for restrictions after seeing many people setting off their own fireworks at an Independence Day fireworks display at Magic Island.

"It was a circus. That's what I call it," Leonardi said. "It was total chaos. It was dangerous; people throwing fireworks all over."

The fire department has long asked for a total ban on fireworks sales but has not been successful with lawmakers. Gov. Linda Lingle has said the issue is not one for the state to decide and that the matter should be up to individual counties.

Fire officials have blamed the increase in brushfires on a wet winter two years ago followed by an unusually wet dry season that led to a two-year buildup of grass and low-lying vegetation. In 2003, when nearly 1,000 brushfires erupted, there also was an unusually dry summer preceded by a wet winter.

The percentage of deliberately set brushfires has increased from about 70 percent in past years to 80 percent this year, fire officials said.

Several times this summer, firefighters have scrambled as multiple brushfires along the Leeward Coast siphoned much of their manpower into the area.

On July 5, four brushfires started in four hours on the Leeward Coast, forcing 50 percent of the department's resources into the area. Fire officials said that had the department faced one more major fire — such as a high-rise fire — it would have had to call in off-duty personnel.

On Monday, arsonists ignited six brushfires on the Leeward Coast, closing roads and forcing about one-quarter of the department's resources into the area. The fires burned more than 100 acres and required about 150 firefighters to shuttle from valley to valley.

And on Tuesday, more than 60 state and federal firefighters fought a 500-acre blaze for more than eight hours in Waialua.

Besides straining resources, fire officials said the blazes have harmed the environment.

Leonardi said that the soot and runoff created by the fires can wreak havoc on neighboring communities. The soot and ash get into the water and blow through homes, forcing residents to clean up something they didn't start. And on Fourth of July, fireworks are thrown into the ocean, adding chemicals to the water.

A June 11 brushfire damaged some fire equipment, officials said, scorching an engine's grill and burning its wiring. The engine is inoperable and will cost an estimated $10,000 to fix. The fires have also taxed the flight time of the department's two helicopters. One is down for mandatory repair while the other is nearing the need for a tuneup.

Meanwhile, police renewed their call for suspects in the fire. Honolulu police put out a CrimeStoppers bulletin Tuesday asking for the public's help, but by yesterday afternoon they had yet to receive a single phone call, said Sgt. Kim Capllonch.

Police Maj. Mike Tamashiro, head of the department's District 8 patrol operations, said the five officers who patrol the 38 miles of Leeward coastline have been repeatedly reminded over the past two months to check remote areas of dense brush several times during their shift.

He said a fire suppression team made up of an undisclosed number of officers is performing surveillance and other activities in the area.

Tamashiro would not elaborate on specific tactics employed by the team.

"We've been working night and day," he said.

One person, a 13-year-old Nanakuli Intermediate School student, has been arrested for allegedly setting a brushfire this year. The confidential proceedings of his case are being handled in Family Court.

On Maui, a "suspicious" fire continued to burn in the hills above Lahaina yesterday, having blackened about 110 acres of brush since Tuesday, officials said.

But Maui Deputy Fire Chief Neal Bal said he was hopeful the fire would be contained because the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife had hired a large-water-capacity Huey helicopter to dump loads on the fire. No structures have been threatened.

Crews were also sent to a second brushfire that started at 4:30 p.m. near Upper Dickenson Road in Lahaina, Bal said.

Meanwhile, the investigation continues into Tuesday's suspicious brushfire along Honoapi'ilani Highway. Maui Police Lt. John Jakubczak said yesterday that investigators have received some tips and are checking them.

The fire was maliciously set in at least four different places along the highway from Ma'alaea to the scenic lookout.


Anyone with information about who may have started an O'ahu brushfire is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 955-8300, *CRIME on your cellular phone. Free cellular calls are provided by Cingular, Nextel Hawaii, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless Hawaii.

If you have information on Maui fires, call the police at (808) 244-6425 or Maui CrimeStoppers at (808) 242-6966. CrimeStoppers has offered a $1,000 reward.