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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 9, 2006

Makua controlled burn called off

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Gayland Enriques, fire chief for U.S. Army Garrison, Hawai'i, shows off a device that dispenses balls that ignite after they are dropped on the ground. The balls, about the size of pingpong balls, are used to set controlled burns like the one that was attempted yesterday in Makua Valley.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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MAKUA VALLEY Sixty people, 12 firefighting trucks, four helicopters and a good deal of weather science were present at this Wai'anae Coast military training range yesterday for the first controlled burn since 2003.

At Makua Valley, caution has become the watchword.

On July 22, 2003, the last fire set by the military to manage grasses got out of control and scorched half the 4,190-acre valley.

"There's a lot of tension. I think we're kind of under the microscope and so forth," said Gayland Enriques, fire chief for U.S. Army Garrison, Hawai'i. "But again, we feel that we've got a plan, and as long as we stick to our plan, we've got adequate resources, and as long as the weather cooperates, we'll be OK."

As it turned out, the grass was too wet for a planned 86-acre burn, and by 2:30 p.m. the fire management force that assembled before sunup had called it a day.

The Army plans to try again on March 22 and 23. In addition to 86 acres that are used for troop maneuvers and an artillery impact zone, 284 acres to the north in much the same area as the 2003 fire also will be cleared.

It likely will be a long time before live-fire training returns to Makua, which has become a much-publicized legal battleground for environmentalists and Hawaiian practitioners who oppose military training here.

A federal judge on Feb. 2 rejected an Army bid to resume live-fire training in Makua for Schofield Barracks soldiers heading to Iraq in August, saying the service must abide by federal environmental law requiring a comprehensive study of the impacts of more than 60 years of military training in the valley.

The Army agreed under a 2001 court settlement with Earthjustice and the community group Malama Makua to conduct the study. The valley is home to more than 40 endangered species and 100 archaeological features.

The study was supposed to be completed in October 2004. It's now unclear when it will be done.

To complete the study, the Army says it needs to conduct prescribed burns in Makua to first check for unexploded ordnance, and then conduct archaeological assessments.

The burn in July 2003 was supposed to clear 900 acres. That fire complicated the Army review and led to a formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a new habitat protection plan.

Enriques, who was "burn boss" on the 2003 Makua fire, said sudden gusts up to 32 mph spread embers and the fire.

"Even when we did it back in 2003, we were (within regulations for the burn)," he said. "That's something that you cannot control ... Mother Nature."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.