Dry spell has chief worried about holiday fires

LIHU’E — With a record number of brush fires reported on Kaua’i this month and New Year’s firecracker sales expected to be higher than normal, Kaua’i Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste and Kaua’i Fire Department Chief Robert Westerman yesterday urged residents to use extreme caution while around fire and firecrackers.

“We need to be vigilant and careful,” Westerman said during a meeting with Baptiste and reporters in the mayor’s office at the Lihu’e Civic Center.

Although “we aren’t in a drought condition yet,” the record dry spell could open the way for more brush fires, Westerman said.

A small brush fire in Kapaia Valley on Christmas Day led to deadly consequences before it was put out.

Jonathan D’Attilio, a 21-year-old helicopter pilot, died from injuries he received two days after he crashed his helicopter into the De Mello Reservoir mauka of Lihu’e on Christmas Day.

Just before his Inter-Island Helicopters MD 369 crashed, D’Attilio was trying to scoop up water from the reservoir with a water bucket to help put out the fire in Kapaia Valley.

County officials also said that, in the last four days, fire-fighters have responded to six brush fires for a total of 15 fires for this month. By comparison, there were no brush fires reported in December 2004.

“It wouldn’t take much for a fire to spread rapidly given the current conditions,” Westerman said.

County firefighters have responded to a spate of small fires this month, but they have put them out quickly because residents have reported them, Westerman said.

The dry spell has prompted the state Department of Health officials to ban the burning of debris on Kaua’i for the last two days of 2005.

To prevent brush fires from occurring, Westerman advised residents who live next to open, grassy areas to keep the grass cut to create a buffer for any brush fires.

Additionally, he urged residents not to engage in open-flame burning, not to start a fire to burn weeds, and not to leave matches lying around for children to play with.

Two fires on Kaua’i in the last two months were started by someone using a propane torch to burn weeds, officials said.

With New Year’s celebrations right around the corner, the use of fireworks and firecrackers presents other challenges, including fires from errant fireworks, Baptiste and Westerman said.

No documentation has been produced to show that recent brush fires were caused by fire-crackers, but some of the brush fires might have been started that way, Westerman said.

“Most importantly, we need to ask everyone to please keep fireworks out of the hands of children,” said Westerman.

He pointed out the results of a report the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued earlier this year indicate injuries to children under 15 were a major component of total fireworks-related injuries, accounting for 40 percent of the total estimated injuries.

Westerman said there were no reported fires caused by fireworks during New Year’s Eve on Dec. 31, 2004, and during New Year’s Day 2005, although there was one during the same period in 2004.

Westerman attributes the low incidence of fireworks-related fires on Kaua’i in 2004 partly to people not reporting them, and also to the heavy rains prior to and on New Year’s Day.

“But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant,” he added.

Baptiste and Westerman out-lined tips residents can employ to minimize the risk of brush fires and injuries in the remaining days of the year, and into the new year:

  • Adults should always supervise fireworks activities;
  • Young children should not be allowed to play with or ignite fireworks;
  • People should keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of a fire or other mishap;
  • People should not relight or pick up fireworks that have not been fully spent;
  • People should stay clear of homes and open, dry-grass areas when lighting fireworks;
  • People should not point or throw fireworks at another person;
  • People should not carry fire-works in a pocket or ignite them in metal or glass containers;
  • People should light one item at a time, then move back slowly;
  • People should make sure fireworks are legal before buying or using them.

Westerman said people are required to secure permits from officials at KFD’s headquarters at the Lihu’e Civic Center to purchase and light firecrackers on Kaua’i.

Westerman said up to 200 permits have been issued since Monday, Dec. 26, when they were on sale, and he anticipates the sale of as many as 300, or 50 more than in previous years, by tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve.

The cost of a fireworks permit is $25, and the permit can be used to purchase up to 5,000 non-aerial, individual firecracker units.

No limit exists on the number of permits an individual can obtain to buy firecrackers, officials said.

Applicants must be at least 18 years old to be issued a permit, officials said.

Firecrackers may be ignited from 9 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve, to 1 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 1, New Year’s Day.

Fire-department permits are not required for the purchase of other fireworks, such as items that smoke or sparkle and are not made of paper, because they are not as dangerous to handle, county officials said.

Permits are required to purchase and light firecrackers on Kaua’i. Applications for the permits are available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, Friday, Dec. 30, at KFD headquarters located at the Lihu’e Civic Center, Mo’ikeha Building, Suite 295.

Completed applications must be walked downstairs to the clerks at the county Department of Finance, where fees for the permits will be collected.

Permit applications will also be available at the county Department of Finance clerk counter next to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the Kapule Building at the Lihu’e Civic Center, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve.

For more information on the issuance of firecracker permits, please contact the KFD’s Fire Prevention Bureau at 241-6511.

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