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Large Maui brushfire causes evacuations, closes highway

A large brush fire that forced the evacuation of businesses and homes and the closure of Honoapiilani Highway in Maalaea continued to burn out of control this morning, Maui firefighters said.

Authorities evacuated Maui Ocean Center, Maalaea Harbor shops and about a dozen homes near Maalaea Village Road, said Maui Fire Department spokesman Edward Taomoto.

The Red Cross reports that they fed 350 people who took shelter at evacuation centers at the War Memorial in Wailuku and Lahaina Civic Center in West Maui.

The fire closed a 15-mile strech of Honoapiilani Highway from Kuihelani to Olowalu.

Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said today that the closure of the highway shows the need for an alternate route to West Maui.

“Our residents and visitors can be cut off at any time due to a brushfire, rockslide or even a bad traffic accident, as they were yesterday,” Arakawa said in a written statement. “Even I was stuck in Lahaina last night and was forced to take the back road out, which is not made to handle heavy traffic. I urge our state delegates, governor and lieutenant governor to do another Environmental Impact Study that looks at every alternative to creating another West Maui route. These events that cut off Lahaina from the rest of the island are happening all too often and we need to look for other solutions.”

The fire began about 12:30 p.m. mauka of the intersection of Kuihelani Highway and Honoapiilani near the area where firefighters put out another brush fire earlier Saturday.

Taomoto said a downed Maui Electric power line started a half-acre fire about 1:30 a.m. Saturday. Firefighters extinguished that fire about two hours later, but the fire may have rekindled in the afternoon, causing the larger blaze, Taomoto said.

Taomoto said strong winds of about 30 mph hampered firefighting efforts.

Hikers trapped above the fire were airlifted to safety.

Intermittent highway closures snarled traffic.

Maui Electric Co. officials say the fire and strong winds broke an electrical line and about 16,000 people lost power for a few hours.

Firefighters last night focused on knocking down hot spots to reopen the highway, Taomoto said. The fire burned about 6,000 acres by 6 p.m.

About 50 firefighters battled the blaze Saturday along with about a dozen state Division of Forestry and Wildlife personnel. Three helicopters and heavy equipment from Goodfellow Bros. and West Maui Land Co. were assisting.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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