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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 2, 2006

Wildfire strands travelers on Maui

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

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MA'ALAEA, Maui Tourists and commuters found themselves stranded in traffic yesterday, unable to reach hotels, the airport or their jobs when a wildfire on the mountainside above Ma'alaea forced officials to close Honoapi'ilani Highway.

As of 10:40 p.m. last night, the fire had burned more than 2,000 acres and was "definitely not contained," Deputy Fire Chief Neal Bal said.

Two lanes of the highway were reopened but officials warned that the highway might have to be closed again if the fire shifted.

"Goodfellow Brothers has lent some very heavy bulldozers to the operation that has cut some major fire breaks, allowing us to get a handle on the lower elevations of the fire," Bal said.

There were no reports of injuries or damaged homes, officials said.

More than 80 people were being accommodated in a shelter opened at the War Memorial Gym in Kahului, officials said. The Red Cross and Pizza Hut were providing refreshments.

Officials said that Maui Civil Defense was coordinating with State Civil Defense, FEMA and the military to bring in more resources to aid county efforts today.

At one point, the fire surrounded the new Kaheawa wind farm and it was taken off line as a safety precaution. Maui Electric Co. said that would not affect its power generation capacity.

The two-lane road is the main link between West Maui and the rest of the island. The only other way out of Lahaina is in the opposite direction around the northwestern end of the island, through Kahakuloa and into Wailuku on narrow, winding two-lane Kahekili Highway.

At about 2 p.m., officials began asking residents of the small number of homes on the makai side of Honoapi'ilani Highway west of the harbor to voluntarily evacuate, and patrons and workers at the shops and restaurants at the harbor also were asked to leave. Police had cut off traffic to the harbor area due to limited visibility from heavy smoke on the pali section of Honoapi'ilani Highway. Motorists were being stopped at North Kihei Road and on the highway at Ukumehame, before the pali.

Salome Gutierrez, assistant manager at the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, said some guests who missed the 3:30 p.m. check-in time called to make sure the 430-room hotel would hold their reservations. "When they call, we tell them to just pull over or go shopping (in Central Maui) or have some dinner, but they stay in traffic," she said.

At the same time, several other guests who had checked out decided to check back in instead of fight the traffic, according to Gutierrez. All of the 14 to 18 planned vacancies were gone by late afternoon, she said.

The road closure also was keeping hotel employees from reaching Ka'anapali, and workers who started earlier in the day were asked to extend their shifts until relief arrived. Gutierrez, who lives in Lahaina, clocked in at 7 a.m. and was due to knock off at 4 p.m., but with two workers missing from the front desk alone, she was uncertain when she'd be able to leave.

"We cannot help it. It's happened before," she said, referring to the regular closures of Honoapi'ilani Highway because of car crashes, brushfires and other incidents.

Uncertainty about the traffic situation led the Maui Interscholastic League to cancel last night's football game between Lahainaluna and Pac-3 at the War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku. The game is to be rescheduled for later in the month.

The fire began around 1:30 a.m. yesterday north of Ma'alaea Harbor. County and state fire crews, county public works employees, private contractors and three helicopters sought to contain the fire as it advanced on two fronts, heading toward Olowalu and Waikapu. The Air National Guard agreed to send a Black Hawk and a Chinook helicopter to help with water drops.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.