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Weary Maui residents on edge as firefighters battle 2 blazes

  • Video courtesy Blue-Hawaiian Helicopters

    Gov. David Ige declared Maui County a disaster area in an emergency proclamation Friday. The South Maui brush fire that began Thursday burned 12,000 acres by Friday evening.


    Thursday’s fire in South Maui prompted evacuation orders and diverted flights.


    Smoke encompassed the recently decommissioned Puunene Sugar Mill on Maui as crews battled a fire that broke out Friday afternoon. The fire in South Maui that began Thursday has scorched at least 9,000 acres.


    An out of control wildfire that began along a major Central Maui highway burned Thursday.

Just when Maui officials thought they had a handle on the 9,000-acre South Maui fire that began Thursday, a second, separate blaze in Central Maui broke out Friday afternoon.

Police have opened an arson investigation into the Central Maui fire in Puunene that had burned at least 200 acres as of late Friday afternoon.

County officials said at 9:40 p.m. that the South Maui fire was 70% contained, while the Puu­nene fire that broke out at about 1:30 p.m. in the area of Target, Lowe’s and Safeway off Hookele Street was 80% contained.

Police said they are interested in identifying a truck and its owner as it was seen leaving the area of the Hookele Street fire. It is described as a maroon-colored Ford truck, early to mid-2000s with truck racks and dual rear wheels.

While visitors were able to fly out Friday, residents living in the aftermath of the conflagration are angered, saddened and dealing with the residual smoke, ash and fear of flare-ups and new fires breaking out.

“It’s honestly very surreal,” said North Kihei resident Taryn Bovee, 34, who slept Thursday in her car at a dog-friendly resort with her two dogs and returned home to the nauseating smell of smoke inside her home and ash in the yard.

“When I let the animals out, they came running back in like, ‘What is that?’ Everything is covered in soot,” she said.

“The wind picked up like crazy” Friday, she said. “I was sure something was going to flare up. We’re just waiting to see what’s going to come of everything. We got our go bags ready, but we’re worried about the main highways being shut down again.”

Gov. David Ige declared Maui County a disaster area in an emergency proclamation Friday that will enable the state to provide relief from fire damage.

At a 3 p.m. news conference, Maui Police Department Maj. Vic Ramos said mistakes were made Thursday night, but it was unclear what he was referring to. He mentioned the positioning of police officers and roadblocks.

He said things were chaotic and were moving quickly Friday, and “we want to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes.”

Mayor Mike Victorino addressed his choice not to allow the public to use a private access road owned by Oprah Winfrey and Haleakala Ranch, saying, “I would not encourage nighttime use,” but conceded it could be used for evacuation.

He said there was not enough police presence Thursday, and was “not going to send people up there where there’s more smoke,” referring to the Kula area.

On Friday he said there are other highways available. Victorino said he also did not keep the Army National Guard’s helicopter on Maui because it appeared things were under control. That was before the Puunene fire, which was next to Kahului Business Park.

Several businesses and stores were evacuated, including Lowe’s, which was voluntarily evacuated, and Target, which received a mandatory evacuation order.

The blaze was threatening the old sugar mill and museum, other area structures, as well as the Maui Economic Opportunity base yard, MFD Fire Services Chief Ryan Yatsushiro said.

Winds were “pretty brisk,” and the fire was “well established quickly,” he said.

However, he made clear the two were separate fires, not an ember from one fire sparking the other, and were about 5 to 6 miles apart.

Victorino, who did a flyover earlier in the day, said it appeared the South Maui fire that affected North Kihei scorched closer to 12,000 acres, many of the hot spots were out and there was not a lot of concern.

The Maalaea Generating Station was not damaged, but a transmission line running to Kihei was damaged at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday due to the wildfire. Maui Electric Co. continued to make repairs as of 4:30 p.m. Friday and asked customers to conserve electricity.

Bovee, who works from home, considered going to Wailuku, but “we just didn’t want to be stranded, and there was a period of time when all the roads were closed.”

“Neighbors are texting a map of the fire,” she said. “We’re definitely not quite out of the woods.”

Bovee spent Thursday trying to find a shelter, hotel or friend’s house to stay but ran into roadblocks.

“I’ve shed several tears today seeing images of the fire,” she said. “Ash everywhere. We’re going to be remembering this for a very long time, affecting people’s health. We don’t feel safe in our home environment. It just reeks.”

Kihei resident Megan Rodrigues, 40, who spent Thursday night at the Kamalii shelter parking lot with her puppy, decided to leave Kihei after the Puunene fire broke out and spend Friday night upcountry at a friend’s place in Makawao.

“I evacuated again tonight,” she said Friday. “There was a really large fire … that closed Target and Lowe’s.”

Rodrigues passed the Target store when the highway was reopened, and saw helicopters making water drops.

Apparently, others were leaving Kihei as well.

“We were in a mile or two of bumper-to-bumper traffic, crawling along South Kihei Road at about 3:30 p.m.,” she said.

One online news agency reports brush fires on Maui almost daily for the last few months, and had reported that an arson suspect in a previous fire was released pending investigation, Rodrigues said.

She said she thinks the fires are likely the work of arsonists.

“It’s heartbreaking to see this beautiful island charred,” she said.

Windy and hot weather conditions, as well as very dry conditions, contributed to the spread of the fire.

The National Weather Service said more moderate to breezy tradewinds likely will continue today, with 15 to 20 mph winds and up to 25 to 30 mph gusts.

NWS forecaster Alex Gibbs said the good news is the transport winds will shift from east to west and “will help push the smoke plume ultimately out to the waters.”

What’s known as the “Haleakala vortex,” the counterclockwise swirl of the downwind on the lee side of Haleakala, can cause the smoke to get caught up and hang around even in Upcountry Maui.

Anyone with information on the suspect truck can email or message contact information on the Maui Police Department’s Facebook page, or call 244-6434 or 911 in an emergency.

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