The Department of Land and Natural Resources is planning to construct two water tanks on Mauna Kea to help combat brush fires on the mountain’s slopes, including land designated as palila habitat.
“The project will substantially improve fire protection in this important habitat and recreation area,” a final environmental assessment, issued last week with a finding of no significant impact, said. “What makes fire potentially devastating in the Kaohe Game Management Area and adjacent areas is the value of the existing habitat. The intact mamane/naio forest, valued and protected by ancient Hawaiians, 19th century ranchers, territorial foresters and current wildlife agencies, is in the crosshairs of wildfire. Of particular concern is that the area is the last refuge of the critically endangered palila, the lone surviving finch-billed honeycreeper found in the main Hawaiian Islands.”
DLNR is under federal orders to protect the palila and its habitat, which is currently limited to elevations on Mauna Kea above 6,000 feet. More than 95 percent of the bird’s population is on the mountain’s southwest slope.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will provide funding for the $250,000 project, which will build water tanks on two sites. The sites are located off Road 1, one about half a mile above the Kilohana Hunter Check-in Station and the other 700 feet south of Puu Laau, the environmental assessment said. Each site will have a covered, 40,000 gallon holding tank for water obtained from trucks or catchment. Pipes will run water to a smaller, open diptank, which helicopters can access with a dip bucket during fires.
The next closest diptanks now available are at Pohakuloa Training Area and are 3 to 10 miles away. DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife officials said 2 miles or less is the optimal distance from a fire diptank to the fire.
In all, the project will disturb less than half an acre of land, and that land has already been developed, the document said. DLNR’s State Historic Preservation Division said the site has no cultural or historical properties that would be affected by the water tank project. No threatened or endangered plant species were found in the area, DLNR said, and the timing of construction would be done in a way that minimizes impacts to threatened or endangered animals.
The project also will not affect hunting, off-road vehicle use or birding, the environmental assessment said.
Maps of wildfires in the area show that between 1954 and 2005, most of the nonbare lava surface between Waimea and Puuwaawaa has burned, much of it multiple times, the document said. In 2011, 1,200 acres burned east of Mauna Kea State Park.
More water coverage is coming for the region, the environmental assessment said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded a grant to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization to build more fire diptanks in the Puuanahulu and Waikoloa areas. Pohakuloa Training Area is planning more fire diptanks, too.