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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 26, 2005

Wet winter furnished the fuel

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Two years of overgrown vegetation fed by a wet winter have set the stage for a "pretty tough fire season," a weather official said yesterday.

Michael Webster, a firefighter based at Engine 28 in Nanakuli, gets ready for what a weather official predicts will be a "pretty tough fire season" on O'ahu. Recent brushfires have scorched more than 3,000 acres in Nanakuli Valley and 45 acres at Kalaeloa.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

The problem has been exacerbated by an arsonist and a youth setting off fireworks and fueled by thousands of acres of dry vegetation, leaving experts worried that brushfires may be a constant source of trouble this summer.

More than 3,000 acres of Nanakuli Valley have been ravaged by a fire that was intentionally set and continues to flare up, and the Honolulu Fire Department yesterday was containing another fire in Kalaeloa that has so far consumed about 45 acres.

Fire officials and a forecaster with the National Weather Service say that a wet winter two years ago followed by an unusually wet dry season led to a two-year buildup of grass and low-lying vegetation.

Andy Nash, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service on O'ahu said last winter was more or less normal in terms of rainfall.

"But we have two years' worth of vegetation that grew and not much of a fire season last year so we're kind of stuck," he said. "It makes it potentially a pretty tough fire season. We could see bigger fires. Basically, we have two years of growth."

Fire officials acknowledge that brushfires have spiked this year due to the weather conditions. As of May 12, there have been 210 brushfires reported, compared with 89 reported through May 12 last year, according to fire officials. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, 21,781 wildfires that have consumed 653,252 acres had been reported as of Friday.

Honolulu Fire Department Capt. Kennison Tejada said the recent spate of fires would not alter HFD's suppression strategy. He said firefighters react and adapt to the situation that presents itself, and that no HFD member is new to brushfire season.

"It's definitely busier than last year but it's not critical or anything," he said. "The guys out there are used to it. The guys are prepared. We know that some seasons are busier than others."

Earl Pawn, a forester with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said he is concerned by the wet winter especially as he starts the annual process of clearing fire breaks between native forests and brush that might burn.

He said 98.4 acres of the Nanakuli Forest Reserve have burned so far in the blaze along the back bowl of Nanakuli Valley. Several native plants were charred, he said.

Yesterday, about 30 firefighters worked to stamp out the smoldering embers left by the Kalaeloa fire while 20 more firefighters supported by HFD's Air One pilot did the same at the Nanakuli site. The department operated at normal staffing levels yesterday.

Last Thursday, a 13-year-old boy surrendered to police in connection with the Nanakuli Valley brushfire. The Nanakuli Intermediate School student was arrested on suspicion of second-degree criminal property damage.

On Tuesday a juvenile turned himself in to Kapolei police, after he admitted to officers that he was playing with jumping-jack fireworks, one of which shot into the bushes.

Police released the boy, and said because the fire was on federal property, the case would be turned over to federal law enforcement.

Reach Peter Boylan at 535-8110 or pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com