Fire chief says rash of blazes needs to stop

WAIKAPU – Saying a recent rash of unscheduled cane fires has endangered residents and firefighters while taxing Fire Department resources, Fire Chief Jeff Murray asked for help from the community by reporting suspicious activity.

“We feel it’s time to make a statement because we want to make sure these fires stop happening,” Murray said during a news conference Wednesday morning in the gravel parking lot of the Waikapu on 30 store on Honoapiilani Highway. “So we’re asking the community to be on the lookout and report anything that seems suspicious or unusual.

“Safety is our main concern.”

As Murray spoke, a Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. harvester worked to salvage cane from 4 acres nearby that burned in an unscheduled cane fire reported at 10:57 p.m. June 13. That fire, which threatened several homes near Waiko Road, was followed by two others reported within about an hour into the early morning of June 14, burning 1 acre at Pulehu Road and 4 acres at Kuihelani Highway and Maui Lani Parkway.

Since mid-May, fire officials said unscheduled cane fires have blackened about 42.5 acres, with HC&S losing an estimated $182,500 in sugar crop.

“The series of unscheduled cane fires that has occurred over the last two months is a serious problem,” HC&S General Manager Rick Volner Jr. said in a statement released by the company Wednesday afternoon. “HC&S’ number one concern with the fires is the community’s general safety and the safety of Maui County’s first responders and our HC&S employees who deal directly with the fires.

“We truly appreciate the county’s proactive approach in this matter, and we stand ready to assist our local authorities in any way possible to help find resolution to these dangerous occurrences.”

The company declined further comment “so as not to risk jeopardizing” the official investigation.

While the cane fires haven’t officially been classified as arson, fire officials believe the fires may have been intentionally set because there are no obvious points of ignition, such as downed power lines, lightning strikes or campfires, according to a Maui County news release. Most of the fires have occurred in easily accessible places.

Police are investigating cases of felony first-degree criminal property damage in some of the fires, according to the county.

Anyone who sees suspicious activity as a fire is occurring is asked to call 911. To provide tips or information on any of the recent fires, people may call the police Criminal Investigation Division at 244-6425 on weekdays during regular business hours.

Murray said some evidence gathered from fire scenes is being sent away for additional testing.

The unscheduled cane fires reported this year include:

* One at 2:35 p.m. May 19 along Holomua Road near Makawao Union Church.

* Two fires, 150 feet apart on Holomua Road, burning 2 acres at 8:23 p.m. June 1, followed by a 3-acre fire at 10 p.m. near Kamaaina Road and Mokulele Highway.

* A 26-acre fire at 12:45 p.m. Sunday on Hana Highway that affected nearby businesses including Mama’s Fish House, which was evacuated. Residents mauka of the highway also were affected by the fire, Murray said.

* A 1:40 p.m. fire Monday that burned about a half-acre off North Kihei Road.

“We haven’t seen any patterns,” Murray said. “It’s been happening pretty much throughout the day. There’s nothing we can key on at this point.”

Because of the size of cane fires, equipment is needed for the firefighting effort, Murray said.

“It has to be a coordinated effort,” he said. “We don’t send people inside the cane itself unless they’re with a rig for safety reasons.”

The Fire Department’s Air One helicopter was deployed “in quite a few of the fires to keep them from spreading,” he said.

At roughly $1,000 for about an hour and a half of flight time, on top of the cost of the county’s helicopter contract, the cost can be substantial, Murray said.

To fight some of the cane fires, crews from as far as Lahaina have been assigned to Central Maui, leaving less coverage in other areas, Murray said.

“All of our resources get taxed,” he said. “It really hampers our ability to respond to the regular calls we have. It’s also a danger to our firefighters and the community.”

As an example, Murray referred to a June 12 fire at a Kaanapali Royal Condominiums unit. Two police officers rescued an 84-year-old man, who later died at an Oahu hospital.

“Just think if they were out there battling a brush fire, we might have had to battle the whole condo instead of one unit,” Murray said.

“At some point, we may not be able to be there on time or it’s going to take us away from another emergency that could use us,” he said. “Our job is to be in readiness all the time.”

Murray recalled a rash of unscheduled cane fires in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

But this year, “we’re having more in a short period of time,” he said. “We just want to discourage that type of activity.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.