National Park Service firefighters have spent the week trying to prevent a wildfire ignited by Kilauea volcano from spreading through a protected rain forest inhabited by endangered Hawaiian plants and animals.
Nearly 100 acres of the 2,750-acre east rift zone’s special ecological area, a lowland rain forest, has already been destroyed in the fire ignited March 5 by an eruption at the Kamoamoa fissure.
The Napau wildfire on the east rift of the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano has destroyed 2,076 acres about seven miles southeast of the Kilauea Visitor Center since early March.
The special ecological area is the home of the endangered Hawaiian bat, Hawaiian hawk and other uniquely Hawaiian plants and animals such as the Hawaiian thrush, lama and sandalwood trees, happy face spiders, carnivorous caterpillars and Hawaiian honeycreepers, said Gary Wuchner, National Park Service fire information spokesman. Some of the plants are found only in Hawaii.
Mardi Lane, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park spokeswoman, described the area as "pristine."
"It best represents what Hawaii was and is a seed source for plants and refuge for birds," Lane said. "It is a living laboratory of Hawaiian plants and animals."
Firefighters will be working to keep flames from spreading beyond the 100 acres of the refuge on the northern perimeter of the fire, said Rhonda Loh, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park chief of natural resources management.
"It is the focal point of our fire crews," Loh said.
Wuchner said an infrared mapping flight showed the fire’s fuel comprises "single logs, standing dead trees, stumps, roots and large dead areas of vegetation, and mostly on the southeast perimeter."
But there also is concern for the endangered plants and animals living in the southern Kealakomo and Naula Special Ecological Areas located south of the Chain of Craters Road, which reopened yesterday after being closed for two days because of the wildfire. A section of the road was closed about six miles from the visitor center at Mau Loa o Mauna Ulu.
Wuchner said fire crews were sent to scout the two areas yesterday.
Park Service firefighters were aided by rain in the area this week. However, firefighters were hampered yesterday by strong tradewinds with gusts up to 45 mph. Flames were visible along the south flank of the volcano’s summit and Chain of Craters Road.
Helicopters have been shuttling Park Service firefighting crews and equipment into the fire area. At work are 43 Park Service firefighters from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California; Olympic and Yosemite national parks; the Pacific West Regional Office in Oakland; the National NPS Fire Office in Boise, Idaho; and the Eldorado, Sequoia, Stanislaus and Los Padres national forests in California.