A brush fire Monday afternoon forced the evacuation of Ka‘u Hospital and the closure of Highway 11 in both directions in the Pahala area.
Marilyn Harris, the hospital’s administrator, said at about 5:30 p.m. that the facility’s 15 long-term care residents had been moved to the Naalehu Community Center.
“They’re all fine. We had a pretty organized response,” she said, adding that the hospital staff was in the process of securing the facility and moving operations to the community center.” Earlier, about 2:30 today, the Fire Department was saying it was in the macadamia nut orchard to the south of us, and actually quite close to the water. The initial thinking was that it wasn’t a danger to us. But as the wind whipped it up, it traveled very, very quickly up towards us.”
The fire also forced police to close Hawaii Belt Road (Highway 11) between the 50- and 51-mile markers at shortly after 3 p.m. The highway was still closed as of press time.
Harris said there were no acute-care inpatients when the blaze forced the evacuation.
She added that the fire made its way onto the hospital grounds “maybe about a hundred yards away” from the main building.
“The problem at our facility primarily was smoke,” Harris noted. “While there was concern about the fire coming onto our property, which it did do, the real concern was that the smoke coming into the facility was just terrible. And we had everyone wearing (respiratory) masks so they could breathe better.”
Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Arbles said at about 7:45 p.m. that the fire had not done any damage to homes or other buildings, but had blacked about 600 acres of brush, 300 on each side of the highway.
“On the makai side (of the highway) there was a 10,000-gallon diesel fuel tank; the fire was approaching that. But the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut personnel had a bulldozer they used to secure that area,” he said. “We’re not sure how much fuel there was in the 10,000-gallon tank. It could be empty for all we know.”
Arbles said that at the fire’s mauka end, it was “actively moving mauka above Meyer Road and Cane Haul Road,” and that bulldozers were cutting firebreaks in the area.
He said that the wind had “calmed down drastically” from earlier in the day to about 5 miles an hour from the west-southwest. According to the National Weather Service website, winds in Pahala peaked at about 2 p.m. at 19 miles an hour from the east-southeast. An hour later, the wind gauge showed easterly 15 mile-an-hour winds.
Harris said said the firefighters “have been wonderful,” She said that they had placed a water tank in the hospital’s parking lot as a pickup point for a county helicopter making water drops on the fire.
Arbles said the helicopter was sent home at nightfall and eight units remained on-scene to battle the blaze into the night.
The fire was the second to snarl traffic on Highway 11 in Ka‘u. Another brush fire caused the closure of one lane of traffic between the 45- and 46-mile markers north of Pahala between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Assistant Fire Chief Glen Honda said at about 4 p.m. that fire had blackened about 10 acres, but was a lesser concern to firefighters than the one in Pahala town.
“We are actively fighting the bottom-side fire because it’s closer to residences,” he said.
Honda said he didn’t know if either fire had been deliberately set.