KOLOA — As with any disaster there are stories of tragedy and of heroics. The Koloa brush fire on Wednesday afternoon was no exception.
The fire apparently started near a guardrail on the Bypass road and spread rapidly across the former cane field to the row of houses along Kipuka Street. How that small fire started and spread is what investigators from the Kaua‘i Fire Department and the Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife spent all of Thursday probing the area to discover.
Whether it was a careless motorist tossing a cigarette, a spark from someone’s exhaust or natural forces that ignited, the result was roughly 50 acres of brush burning, causing the evacuation of nearly 100 homes, drawing more than 50 Kaua‘i Fire Department personnel and 21 policeman. The fire started around 2 p.m. and by the time it was under control at 5:30 p.m., KFD estimates it caused $950,000 in damages to six structures, including two completely destroyed homes on Kipuka Street in the Weliweli tract.
John and Paulianne Werthwein said they were lucky. Pointing to the spot where the fire began across the road, John said had it started a few hundred feet to the west then the angle of the wind and burn would have surely included their yard. He is upset that as a functioning cane field the brush was plowed and burned annually. Now considered agricultural ground, he said the field has been let to grow for years and was a disaster waiting to happen.
Paulianne said she made a 911 call shortly after 2 p.m. and noticed that the fire was contained largely around the guard rail of the bypass road. The KFD responded quickly, she said, but that it had already engulfed much of the field by the time they arrived.
They credited the KFD for “busting butt” and keeping the wall of fire from reaching even more homes.
Debbie Trenton lives at 2430 Kipuka and said her home was likely saved by good fortune but also by coincidence. Just two weeks ago she cleaned the brush from her yard, removed compost, weeded and put a cloth and screen on the ground around her fence. The fire burned her palm trees on the edge of the yard but the home and a large mango tree were spared.
“Something told me to do this,” said Trenton. “It didn’t jump to my house.”
Trenton also credited the fire department with amazing work on wetting the roofs.
The home of Joel Grace at 2424 Kipuka was destroyed. Joel had purchased the property from his parents, Joe and Paulette Grace, who have lived in the home for more than 40 years and continued to stay with him and other family in the multi-generational family with five adults and three children.
“It was unfortunate that we lost our home,” Paulette said. “This house had so many memories of our three children growing up. There are things that we can’t replace, but I am happy that no human life was taken.”
Everyone worked so hard to save their home and those of the others on the block, she added. Her son, the KFD and other neighbors did all they could, but the trade winds and the brush gave the fire a lot of area and fuel to burn.
“The winds played a big part in all of this,” she said.
Paulette was in Lihu’e when a friend called about the fire. She worried for her son. The police would not let her in the area but the fire department got her son on the phone to assure her that he was safe.
By the time that Joel smelled smoke, the fire was already near the home, she said. He sprayed the home and the shed and then went to help put out the A-frame house fire. He returned to discover his own home engulfed in flames.
“He tried to save things but the flames were so intense and higher than the roof,” she said. “There was no way that anyone could have done anything.”
Paulette also credits a tight-knit island community with an aloha spirit and the outpouring of support has been tremendous. The Red Cross has given the family accommodations and continued support until the insurance takes over.
“The Red Cross was so helpful and have given us the highest urgency,” said Paulette.
Maria Lutz, director of Disaster Services for the Hawai‘i Chapter of the American Red Cross, reported that it supported people of four residences that were impacted by the Koloa brush fire. Caseworkers were at the scene providing the family with temporary housing, food, clothing and other household goods.
“We’re going to keep working with them,” said Lutz. “Things come up a day or two later and case workers are continuing to help with other things that come up.”
The houses on either side of the Grace home were relatively unharmed with the exception of smoke damage and burnt palm trees. The “crazy winds,” as described by Skyla Grace, daughter-in-law of Paulette and Joe, had the firefighters guessing where the flames would pop up next. The flames made an unexpected jump across the street into their own yard, she said, and then across Po‘ipu Road near the Craft Fair.
Skyla said her husband called up friends and that within an hour they had five water trucks arrive from around the island. They helped pick up the slack with wetting down houses and raced to hot spots that were pointed out by hand gestures from the helicopter pilot.
She and others went to homes along the street where they knew the owners were working and brought out pets where they could. They kept them together in a safe place and returned them, some even before the owner returned.
“The dogs were remarkably calm,” Skyla said. “Usually with a fire they have anxiety, but these dogs were very quiet.”
June Tada, who lives at 2328 Kipuka Street, sustained serious damage to her roof and had portions of her home boarded up. She said there is also smoke and water damage and was outside waiting for the insurance adjuster to decide the fate of the home.
Tada said her neighbor, Chris Kauhi, may have prevented her home from completely burning. She said he had just come home from surgery; but when the fire started, he and others went to the homes of neighbors that were out working and found their garden hoses and wet down their roofs.
Kauhi was so close to the flames that people were yelling at him, said Tada, adding that the surfing instructor and lifeguard probably saved his own house as well.
“I have wonderful neighbors,” said Tada.
To send a contribution, mail a check to the American Red Cross, Hawai‘i State Chapter, 4485 Pahe‘e St., Ste. 145, Lihu‘e 96766 or online at www.hawaiiredcross.org or call 739-8109. The Red Cross encourages families to make a disaster plan. Tips are available at www.redcross.org.