Firefighters work to douse flames encroaching on Highway 11 Tuesday afternoon in the Pahala area. Two separate fires in the area have now consumed 3,400 acres. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
Firefighters work to keep one of the brush fires from crossing Highway 11 Tuesday afternoon northeast of Pahala. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
Ka‘u Hospital reopened its emergency room late Tuesday while firefighters continued to battle two brush fires that have scorched about 4,400 acres and obstructed traffic in the Pahala area.
One of the blazes, located makai of Highway 11, had consumed approximately 4,000 acres as of press time Tuesday, said Hawaii Fire Department Assistant Chief Glen Honda. He was unable to say if the fire remained 40 percent contained, as was estimated by fire officials early Tuesday afternoon, but noted the fire continues to spread makai and northeast, toward Hilo.
The highway, which is the primary way to traverse Ka‘u, was closed at about noon between Kamani Street and mile marker 46. It had yet to reopen as of press time because firefighters remained along the road dousing encroaching flames.
Firefighters working to extinguish the blaze, assisted by county helicopters providing water drops and private crews and bulldozers helping to establish a fire perimeter, are having some difficulty getting the upper hand on the fire because of the area’s inaccessibility, fuel and winds, Honda said. According to a fire department press release, the fire appears to have started in a macadamia nut orchard.
A second fire, which broke out Monday afternoon along Cane Haul Road above Pahala, has burned about 400 acres, Honda said, adding the department estimates it is about 60 percent contained. That blaze, as of press time, did not appear to be spreading.
Honda said the fires do not appear to be related, and fire officials are still investigating their causes.
Ka‘u Hospital, which closed Monday afternoon because of smoke in the building, reopened its emergency room to patients around 7 p.m. Tuesday, said Merilyn Harris, hospital administrator. Volunteers and employees spent the day airing out the building as well as cleaning soot left by the smoke.
The blaze had come within 100 yards of the hospital Monday afternoon, East Hawaii Battalion Chief Aaron Arbles said early Tuesday. Within 30 feet of the facility, embers that managed to cross the highway started small fires, which firefighters were able to quickly quash.
Fourteen of 15 long-term care patients evacuated from the hospital Monday remain at a temporary triage set up at the Naalehu Community Center. One patient was taken home by family.
Harris anticipated late Tuesday the patients may return to the hospital this afternoon, if conditions permit. She added the evacuation of the long-term care patients on Monday was made easier thanks to the hospital’s handicap-accessible van, which the community helped raise funds to purchase. Only two trips were needed.
No other evacuations were ordered because of the fire, Honda said. One home in the fire’s path was protected by firefighters who kept the blaze from crossing the highway Tuesday.
Some 30 firefighters were poised to stay the night to continue to battle the blazes, Honda said. Motorists are asked to avoid the area, even if road closures are lifted, because of crews working.