Fire department probing cause of 200-acre scorcher

Kaua’i Fire Department inspectors yesterday initiated an investigation into the cause of a brush fire that scorched 200 acres northwest of Lihu’e and which could have threatened King Kaumuali’i Elementary School and some homes in Hanama’ulu had its progress not been checked. Employees at Kauai Fruit & Flower Co. were evacuated temporarily as the Tuesday-afternoon blaze raced toward the building.

The fire started shortly after noon Tuesday, and was stopped at the intersection of Kuhio Highway and Kapule Highway by county firefighters from all seven county fire stations, and with water drops by a helicopter from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility. The fire was put out by 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Had the fire not been stopped, it could have continued mauka across Kapule Highway, and could tinued have threatened King Kaumuali’i Elementary School (students return to school today after winter break) and homes in Hanama’ulu.

The fire posed no immediate threat to life or structures, but authorities temporarily evacuated employees at the Kauai Fruit & Flower Co. as a precaution. The retail business is located makai of Kuhio Highway, and the fire was headed in the direction of the business before it was put out.

On Wednesday morning, Capt. David Bukoski and fire inspector Daryl Date, both of KFD’s Prevention Bureau/Plans Review division, combed parts of the 200-acre parcel, mostly coastal areas located north of Hanama’ulu Bay, to try to determine a possible cause of the fire.

Bukoski said the investigation is ongoing, and that he will be talking with members of the fire company who initially responded to the fire.

“There are a lot of rumors floating around (as to the cause of the fire),” said a Kaua’i County Department of Public Works employee, who was at the fire site on Wednesday and who asked not to be identified. “One is that the fire started because of a controlled burn (that got out of control).”

Another DPW employee said the persistent dry weather on Kaua’i raises the risk for another huge brush fire igniting somewhere on Kaua’i. “If it doesn’t rain, it gets so hot (out in the fields that a fire can start),” the employee said. Tuesday’s fire was the first of the year, and comes on the heels of a record number of 15 brush fires in December.

In all, more than 400 acres, including residential areas, were blacked by fires, some started by people using torches to burn weeds. Fewer brush fires occurred in past times because the land on which they now have flared were once used for the cultivation of sugar cane. The cane was wet and was less likely to burn, a county official said.

With the decline of the sugar industry and the closure of more sugar companies in Hawai’i and Kaua’i in recent years, thousands of former cane lands on Kaua’i, for instance, lay fallow, and the brush that has grown becomes volatile fire material, the county employee said.

During Tuesday’s fire, county operators of heavy machinery created breaks to halt the spread of the blaze.

The fire worked its way to the western and northern boundaries of the 200-acre parcel, but was stopped at the makai edge of an old cane irrigation ditch system that runs parallel to Kapule Highway.

A county-owned excavator became stuck in the terrain during efforts to put out the fire Tuesday, and operators of a county-owned payloader and a county-owned bulldozer worked Wednesday to recover the machinery, a county DPW employee said.

According to KFD Chief Robert “Bob” Westerman, the fire started in an area makai of the Kapule Highway bridge and on a bluff above Hanama’ulu Beach Park shortly after noon.

About 23 firefighters from seven county fire stations arrived at the scene to combat the fire, and they were supported by water drops from a PMRF helicopter from Barking Sands near Kekaha.

The fire prompted Kaua’i Police Department officers to close off Kapule Highway for a few hours, creating lingering traffic backups on surrounding roads throughout Hanama’ulu and Lihu’e, forcing motorists to clog side roads to find ways back to homes in East and West Kaua’i.

Firefighters conducted mopup operations late into the afternoon, Tuesday, and as late as 5:25 p.m. that day, they were still fighting hot spots of the fire.

County fire officials said the fire was extinguished by 6 p.m. The fire occurred within a 400-plus-acre site owned by E.W. Moody, a Las Vegas inventor of electronic casino games and land developer who had proposed to build a golf course and expansive residential and commercial project a few years ago.

The project was held up due to lack of support from members of the community and government at the time.

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