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Hawaii News

Wind-whipped fire ravages Lahaina hillsides, destroys 21 structures

  • A raging brush fire swept across the Lahaina hillsides early Friday on Maui, fanned by 70 mph gusts from Hurricane Lane. The inferno burned 2,000 acres and claimed 30 vehicles and 21 structures, most of them homes, according to Maui Fire Department officials.
    (Video by Christie Wilson / cwilson@staradvertiser.com)
  • Lahaina resident Chris Speicher describes a raging brush fire that swept across the Lahaina hillsides early Friday on Maui.
    (Video by Christie Wilson / cwilson@staradvertiser.com)
  • CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Friday’s Lahaina brush fire consumed 21 structures, mostly houses, in the early morning conflagration. A luxury home on Hokiokio Place in Lahaina was turned into rubble by the blaze. The unoccupied, 5-acre property was on the market for $5.5 million.

  • CLARISSA HEMPEL / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER

    Rain brought by Tropical Storm Lane on Friday caused problems in Haiku, where a 4-inch waterline to Puu Way and Waha Place was washed out. The Puu Way cul de sac was closed to traffic.

  • CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Lahaina resident Kimmy Van stood in the back yard of her home on Hokiokio Place Saturday, a day after a brush fire burned 2,000 acres and destroyed 21 structures. The fire came right up to the concrete walkway around her home, which was largely untouched by fire.

  • CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Several homes along Lahainaluna Road were destroyed by Friday’s brush fire in Lahaina.

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LAHAINA, Maui >> Residents who fled a raging brush fire that swept across the Lahaina hillsides early Friday, fanned by 70 mph gusts from Hurricane Lane, described witnessing fiery whirlwinds and curtains of fast-moving flames.

The inferno burned 2,000 acres and claimed 30 vehicles and 21 structures, most of them homes, according to Maui Fire Department officials. The losses include 10 residences in Kauaula Valley occupied by a small community of Native Hawaiian families with long-held ties to the area, as well as multimillion-dollar mansions.

A woman who lived in the valley suffered burns to her arms and legs and was flown to Honolulu for treatment.

The blaze was 80 percent contained by Saturday afternoon with scattered areas of still-smoldering brush, but no additional structures were in danger, MFD officials said.

An estimate of the damage was not available and the cause of the fire had not been determined.

About 4,000 Maui Electric Co. customers in West Maui remained without power for a second day Saturday after high winds damaged 30 utility poles and felled transmission lines serving the region. Outages were first reported around 4:30 a.m. Friday, according to spokeswoman Shayna Decker.

Because of the extensive nature of the repair work, which involves replacing six poles ranging from 65 to 75 feet in height and restringing power lines, MECO advised customers that the power could be restored by late Saturday night but to prepare for longer outages.

The fire is believed to have started at about 12:45 a.m. Friday high in the hills above Puamana. It spread downslope to Honoapiilani Highway and to the south to Launiupoko and to the north to Lahainaluna Road. Approximately 100 homes were evacuated.

Six homes off Lahainaluna Road were reduced to rubble by the fire, officials said, including two next door to Wade Hiraga’s property.

Hiraga, 61, said he awoke around 1 a.m to the smell of smoke and saw “a curtain of fire” approaching from the south. He turned on his sprinklers as a precaution but by 4 a.m. the flames were within 50 feet of his yard, he said.

He described seeing “tornadoes of fire whirling up to the sky” and flames at least 15 feet tall.

“I’ve never seen something so devastating,” he said.

“Devastating” is also how Chris Speicher described the fire, which destroyed a neighbor’s $5.5 million home on Hokiokio Place in the Puunoa subdivision above Puamana.

Speicher and his wife, Peggy Lyn, are Realtors with Hawaii Life, which recently listed the stately five-acre, three-bedroom property with a separate three-car garage and swimming pool for sale. They said the owners had packed up their belongings and moved to San Diego just three weeks ago.

“There is nothing left other than the foundation of the property. It was a beautiful, beautiful property and there’s literally nothing left except for smoldering piles of ash. It’s very sad,” he said.

The home the Speichers are renting just below the burned residence was untouched by the fire. Even still, the couple recalled the harrowing experience of being awakened by police and hurriedly escaping the looming carnage.

“From the time police and the fire department and our landlord showed up to the time we were in the car to evacuate might have been two minutes, maybe less,” he said. “There was smoke everywhere and the fire was all around. We just literally got in the car and got out as quickly as we could.”

The Speichers said they checked in to the Hyatt Regency Resort in Kaanapali but a few short hours later saw and smelled smoke from a separate fire that had started around 7:30 a.m. Friday on the hills above the resort. They immediately checked out of the hotel and headed farther north to the safety of a condo in Kapalua.

Lower on Hokiokio Place, Quan Van’s home also was spared, although flames burned right up to the concrete walkway surrounding the structure. The property remained without water or power Saturday.

Van, 41, said he watched the fire burn its way downhill toward Puamana and thought they were safe.

“We figured it was OK until the winds started blowing back at us, and the hair on my arms was raising up and I said, ‘Oh, my god.’”

Van said he drove to safety with his 2-year-old daughter and his girlfriend, uncertain if his home would survive the blaze. When he returned Saturday, he saw puddles of water surrounding the structure and figured firefighters had sprayed the property to protect it.

To show his appreciation, Van drove around Saturday delivering plate lunches to police officers, firefighters and utility workers.

At least one other home burned in Puunoa, as did some horse stables, although no animals were hurt in the fire, officials said.

Friday’s brush fire swept across mostly vacant cane fields formerly farmed by Pioneer Mill, which conducted its last sugar harvest in 1999. The area has been subject to a number of brush fires over the years, and fire officials said they had come to expect fires to behave a certain way based on predictable wind patterns that occur at different times during the day.

“In this case it was so unpredictable. The winds were blowing the fire in so many different directions, it was hard to grab ahold of it,” said Deputy Fire Chief Lionel Montalvo.

Battalion Chief Michael Werner said it was fortunate MFD had mustered additional manpower and equipment in anticipation of storm-related flooding and winds, and county public works equipment had been staged in key areas for the same reason. Firefighters also got assistance from private construction companies with heavy equipment.

More than 70 county firefighters battled the blaze, assisted by state airport fire crews and, later, by Division of Forestry and Wildlife personnel.

Firefighters were tested further when the blaze broke out in Puukolii, north of Lahaina, at 7:30 a.m. Friday, causing the evacuation of approximately 100 homes in the Kaanapali Hillside subdivision.

Montalvo said MFD had to send some of its Lahaina crews to deal with that fire, which eventually burned 800 acres and damaged one residence.

Heavy equipment provided by private companies worked quickly to cut fire breaks and the blaze was contained by 2 p.m.

Elsewhere on Maui, rain from Tropical Storm Lane continued to cause problems along the eastern portion of the island. In Haiku, a 4-inch waterline to Puu Way and Waha Place was washed out and the Puu Way cul de sac was closed to traffic.

Other road closures in the Haiku area included Haiku and Kaupakalua roads, Piiholo Road in Makawao, Piilani Highway by mile marker 37 near Kaupo, and Honokolani, Ulaino and Waikaloa roads in Hana.

MECO reported isolated outages in the Upcountry area, Haiku and Waihee, and on Molokai.

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