As a dry Hawaii Island kicks off Independence Day festivities, fire officials have yet to tally how much taxpayers will dole out for June brush fires that scorched 5,600-plus acres in Pahala.
Hawaii Fire Department Chief Darren Rosario said Tuesday he was unable to provide the cost, or an estimate, because the department hadn’t yet extrapolated the expenditures related only to fighting the Pahala brush fires. The fires broke out June 18 and continue to smolder after the larger 5,200-acre makai fire was declared “contained and controlled” about 4 p.m. Sunday.
“It’s something that we don’t have figured out (yet) because the costs for on-duty and overtime personnel are already built into the budget,” he said, adding that the cost will be compiled after the fires are extinguished. “I couldn’t answer it off the bat.”
Though taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill, Rosario explained that the amount will not be in addition to the department’s annual budget, which includes funding for such incidents as well as contracting private bulldozers and helicopters when needed. The Pahala fires required the county contract one helicopter on June 18 and several bulldozers thereafter.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which fulls under the federal National Park Service, spent about $10,000 and 500 man-hours assisting in the operation, said Joe Molhoek, the park’s fire management officer. The federal firefighters were released from duty on Sunday.
State Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, which also assists with county fire operations, was not involved in the Pahala fires, said Debbie Ward, DLNR spokeswoman.
As a point of reference for firefighting costs, three brush fires that burned in 2010 in the Kealakekua area, consuming 3,200 acres, cost the county about $470,000, not including $160,000 in federal and state assistance provided, according to then-Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira. Those numbers, which equate to about $196 per acre involved in the fire, were released four months after the fires were extinguished.
In all, about 5,600 acres have burned since the Pahala fires broke out in land mauka and makai of the town last month. The smaller mauka fire burned about 400 acres before being declared “contained and controlled” in late June.
Fire Prevention Bureau Battalion Chief Gantry Andrade said investigators determined the makai blaze was likely ignited by heavy equipment working within a macadamia nut orchard below Highway 11. The origins and ignition sources could not be determined for the two other fires that started on the same day — a small fire reported early in the morning at Kapapala and the 400-acre blaze.
Pahala firefighters will remain at the fire perimeters, dousing any flare-ups and hotspots as they arise, Lum said.
“The fires will continue to actively burn (within the perimeters) and the smoldering will continue for some time,” Rosario said. “Personnel are patrolling the scene and area.”
Now that firefighters have gained an upper hand on the Ka‘u blazes, the department, despite the island’s dry conditions, is hoping for a relatively quiet Fourth of July, Rosario said.
He cautioned residents all over Hawaii Island, including specifically the dry areas of West and South Hawaii, to be not only careful but also responsible in setting off fireworks this year. Nearly every area, except for Hilo where rainfall has been ample, is at risk for fire.
“It’s all dry with high fuel we see from good rains earlier in the year,” he said about conditions. “Be aware of the dry brush.”
Residents are advised not to light fireworks near brush, homes, vehicles, garages or any other structure or flammable material. An established, and ample, water supply should be near. If cooking outdoors, tend the fire at all times and make sure it is extinguished before leaving.
Hawaii Electric Light Co. added all fireworks and set-ups should remain clear of power lines. Residents also should not string fireworks to poles or lines.
Aerial luminary devices, including the flying lantern, are illegal, Andrade said. Signal flares are exempt.
Despite all the precautions, in case a fire does ignite, Rosario said the best thing to do is immediately call 911 while another person tries to put the flames out. Do not wait until the fire is out of control, because “it’s easier for us to respond and cancel or leave the scene than to head to a well-established fire.”
“Be responsible and have fun,” Rosario said. “If everyone can handle fireworks as intended then we should stay out of trouble.”