Arsonist believed to have set Hawaii fires
|Photo gallery: Big Island brush fires|
Hundreds of people had to leave their homes in the Waimea area of the Big Island yesterday after thousands of acres burned in fires that authorities believe were deliberately set.
Those evacuated were allowed back into their homes at 6 p.m., said Big Island Civil Defense administrator Troy Kindred.
There were no reported injuries or buildings damaged, officials said, but what had concerned them most was the smoke.
Hawai'i County Civil Defense officials issued a mandatory evacuation order early yesterday for all residents of the Puako Beach Drive area that affected about 400 people and 200 homes.
The fires had burned 2,300 to 2,600 acres by 6 p.m. and firefighters expected to battle the flames throughout the night.
Kindred said multiple brushfires, ignited about the same time, were set in the South Kohala area early yesterday. The fires, reported at 3:20 a.m., were down from nine to three major fires by yesterday afternoon.
Officials strongly suspect arson, Kindred said.
"It's highly suspicious that nine fires started at the same time," Kindred said. "It's probably really unlikely that nine people threw cigarette butts out the window at the same time in different locations."
The first fire was reported on Waikoloa Road above Waikoloa Village, with additional fires reported later makai of Waikoloa Village on the same road. Several more were along Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway at the Puako Fire Station and Puako solid waste transfer station, another near Kawaihae Village, and the last fires reported were along Akone Pule Highway in North Kohala, said Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira.
Oliveira said fire officials discovered partially burned paper at one of the Puako fires that appeared to have been fashioned into a makeshift torch and used to ignite the tinder-dry brush. The papers were turned over to police investigators, he said.
"The fire of primary importance affecting residents is the Puako Road fire because of the endangerment to homes and people," Big Island Mayor Harry Kim said yesterday afternoon.
That fire consumed 1,500 to 1,800 acres of dry brush, and sent thick smoke over homes and resorts in the area, prompting the evacuations as it burned down to Holoholokai Beach Park.
Oliveira said crews with bulldozers worked throughout the day improving an existing fire break that separated the Puako Drive homes from the flames, and also widening an old road through the brush so it would function as a second improvised firebreak.
By 6 p.m., winds had died down to 6 to 10 mph, which was considerably calmer than the 15 to 25 mph winds earlier in the day. With the fire about 50 percent contained, "we felt it was safe enough to let the residents back in," Oliveira said. He said units would be on the scene throughout the night.
Another major fire near Spencer Beach Park and Kawaihae Road was considered 50 percent to 60 percent contained after it consumed about 600 acres, but had little fuel left to burn, Oliveira said.
Crews were to remain at the scene of that fire as well as another blaze that started along the Akone Pule Highway near the 8-mile marker. That fire was expected to be contained last night, he said.
Eight campers from Germany were evacuated from Spencer Beach Park and stayed briefly at an American Red Cross shelter set up at the Waimea Community Center, but the tourists left later in the day to try to move their camp to another beach, Red Cross officials said.
Hapuna Beach Park, Wailea Beach and Spencer Beach Park were closed.
SOME SUSPECT COPYCAT
It was pitch black outside when 21-year-old Max Hagen, a student at Hawai'i Pacific University who was with his family for the weekend, was awakened by a police officer banging on his window at 4 a.m. There was a fire outside, just 100 feet away from his neighbor's house in Waimea.
"I went for the family photos," Hagen said. "My mom went into her office and grabbed the tax files and things like that."
The Hagen family and other residents in the small subdivision on Waiemi Street all decided to stay, Hagen said.
Luckily, the trade winds blew the smoke and flames away from the homes, he said. Firefighters were able to suppress that fire.
Hagen's neighbor pulled out the garden hose and began wetting down his yard. A dirt road kept the fire back, he said.
"We're all thinking that there's a copycat out there, copying whatever happened in California and trying it out for themselves," Hagen said.
SMOKE AND SUNBATHERS
Shelters were opened yesterday the Waikoloa Elementary School cafeteria and the Waimea Community Center until about 4 p.m.
There were only a few people at the shelters yesterday afternoon, and Kindred said he thought most people affected had gone to the homes of family or friends.
Mark and Stephanie Carpenter of the Villages at Mauna Lani were the only two evacuees at the Waikoloa Elementary School yesterday afternoon, and they didn't plan to stay overnight. The couple said they came mostly to get some relief from the thick smoke.
Mark Carpenter said he was on his morning run yesterday when he looked out from a hill north of his townhouse and saw three fires burning in the Puako and Kawaihae Coastal areas.
Carpenter figured the closest was more than a mile from his home and didn't look particularly threatening yet, but he cut his run short because of the smoke.
By the time he went out in his car to check on the location of the fire, strong winds had pushed the blaze three-quarters of a mile closer to his home.
The fire had burned to the Puako Petroglyph Park and had edged alarmingly close to a new subdivision under construction northwest of the Carpenters' home, he said.
The Carpenters loaded their car and went to a friend's house at the Mauna Lani Terraces to wait out the fires. Then Stephanie Carpenter decided to hike back north along the beach past the Fairmont Orchid to check on a colony of feral cats she helps feed at Holoholokai Beach Park.
That was a mistake. "I went past the Orchid and I couldn't breathe," Stephanie Carpenter said. "I could hardly see, my eyes were burning."
The smoke at the Fairmont Orchid was so intense, Stephanie Carpenter wondered if the resort itself was on fire.
At times, things seemed bizarre. Carpenter said she saw people sunbathing in the smoke at the beach.
Back at the Mauna Lani, the smoke was so thick that Mark Carpenter returned to his home to fetch a respirator, and the couple drove to higher ground at Waikoloa.
"We realize our place if probably safe, but it's not safe to breathe the smoke," Mark Carpenter said. "I thought this could end up being a firestorm, and after San Diego, everybody's running scared," he said.
Puako resident Nann Hylton was awakened about 3:30 a.m. by a friend who was camped on the beach outside Hylton's house. Hylton said she got out her binoculars and stared at three fires glowing near Mahukona, near the Hapuna Prince resort and at the Puako transfer station.
"My first thought was whoever is crazy enough to be out there wants to set these fires?" she said. "It's just a sick person, I don't understand that mentality. I just don't get it, and there's just no way all those could be an accident."
Hylton said she felt responsible for four house guests, so she decided to leave as soon as possible. By about 5:30 a.m., she had closed up her house, packed up a few belongings and driven south on Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway with her house guests.
On the way south, she passed firefighters battling the blazes, "and we said quite a few prayers this morning. We are just indebted to the men who put it on the line for us. There's just not enough that we could say or do for them to show our gratitude."
Correction: Big Island Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.