An enormous wildfire swept across 3,000 acres of mostly fallow former sugar cane fields Thursday, forcing thousands to evacuate, closing down highways, trapping some residents for hours and diverting flights from Kahului Airport to Honolulu.
Visitors and residents who described the scene said thick smoke ominously darkened the sky, the fire jumped roads and ash rained down.
The mayor spoke to the magnitude of the fire, calling it massive and very close to structures, pump stations and the Maalaea power plant in South Maui.
“This fire spread all over the place,” moving southeast toward Kihei, then toward Wailea, even going up Haleakala over mostly barren former sugar cane fields, said Maui Mayor Mike Victorino.
The fire disrupted electricity, landline and cellphone service. Even 911 service was only working intermittently, the mayor said.
>> Photo Gallery: Massive brush fire spreads across Central Maui
The airport was running on generator power, but later in the evening operations were back to normal.
If the fire intensified Thursday night, he promised “we will do our best” to ensure door-to-door notifications and the use of loudspeakers to alert all residents.
“Help us pray that the major event is over, and have a safe night,” Victorino said at the end of a 7 p.m. news conference Thursday.
He said then that “the winds are calm, but it doesn’t mean it can’t kick up at any moment.”
He urged everyone Thursday night to stay vigilant since North Kihei is still in imminent danger.
Maui Fire Department Fire Services Chief Ryan Yatsushiro said, “It’s still a very dynamic situation in the Kihei area. It’s far from being declared contained.”
The mayor said he made the decision to have mandatory evacuations first in North Kihei, followed by Maalaea. Maalaea residents were later allowed to return.
“I’m very happy no one was hurt,” he said.
The fire was reported at 10:42 a.m. at the intersection of Kuihelani Highway and Waiko Road. Winds were estimated at 15 to 20 mph, with higher gusts.
Three helicopters were being used from about 2 or 3 p.m. to make water drops Thursday, but all air operations would cease at sundown, Yatsushiro said.
However, all MFD ground crews “will be working through the night to protect people and property,” he said.
Fifty MFD personnel, including emergency callback personnel, worked the fire, getting assets, including engines and tankers, where they needed to go.
Victorino, who did a flyover prior to his 7 p.m. news conference, addressed the drought conditions.
“Central Maui is brown,” the mayor noted, adding it’s the worst he’s seen it.
Mahi Pono, which took over 41,000 acres of former sugar cane land in Central Maui for diversified agriculture, is starting to plow the fields it intends to plant, Victorino said.
Victorino noted that green farmland appears to have been spared.
“Green fields mean not only produce for us to eat, but also prevents brush fires,” the mayor said.
Kihei resident Justin Pincus left work at the Central Maui Baseyard Kahului early at about 2 p.m. to pick up his 8-month-old daughter from her babysitter in Kihei. He said he tried different routes but all the highways were closed, and ended up three hours later stuck in traffic in Kahului not far from where he started.
He had to backtrack and met up with his girlfriend at Target.
He said the event reminded him of the missile alert scare.
He first saw a big plume of smoke rising up, but it wasn’t getting any better. He saw the animal shelter, located near dead brush — remnants of the cane fields — being evacuated at about 1 p.m.
He said he saw workers trying to create a firebreak around the Maui power plant, but they abandoned their equipment and had to evacuate.
Canadian visitor Roger Norris, from Victoria, British Columbia, said he and his wife and teenage daughter were at the pool at their South Kihei condo when ash started coming down though the sky was clear. After driving toward Wailea, they noticed the sky getting smoky, and by 2:30 p.m. “it was getting thicker and thicker.”
“Even now it’s 6:30 p.m. … Outside it’s quite dark and very smoky. There’s a smell of dense smoke and ash all over the lanai. It’s quite eerie. We know Kihei is cut off, and we’re supposed to fly out tomorrow.”
Many took to Twitter asking whether Oprah Winfrey would open her privately owned access road to allow another way out of the area.
Winfrey tweeted, “Hi there Jack, Access to the road was given to county officials immediately. This was many hours ago. Hoping for the safety of all.”
Indeed, the mayor said both Ulupalakua Ranch and Winfrey made their roads available to the county for public access, but he did not open those up.
They agreed to allow future access as well, and Victorino said county officials will sit down with the landowners to plan better for future disasters such as tsunamis.
As to the cause, Victorino said the county is investigating whether the fire started at a homeless encampment in Waikapu.
Maui Electric said that at about 1:50 p.m. 4,000 customers in South Maui experienced an outage due to the brush fire. A majority of customers’ power was restored at 3 p.m. as Maui Electric rerouted power to the area. Only three customers remained offline at 6 p.m.
Maui Electric said it is monitoring the situation and is taking preventive measures at the Maalaea Generating Station.
The National Guard and a CH47 Chinook helicopter were on standby, but Victorino said he decided not to bring them from Oahu late in the day.
Three shelters were opened. As of 7 p.m. Kihei Community Center had 156 people and six dogs, and the War Memorial Gymnasium had about 200 people. The Kamalii shelter filled up after attracting 253 people.
The Maui Humane Society evacuated its animals in crates and kennels to Maui High School.
The county Department of Transportation also provided six motor coaches, and five school buses were on standby at Kahului Airport to transport visitors and affected residents to shelters. Another 300 people were being transported to the War Memorial Gymnasium.