KAILUA-KONA — From the belly of the C-17 Globemaster at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport on Thursday rolled out two Ford F-550 brush trucks ready to head to Pohakuloa Training Area.
The arrival-by-air of the off-road apparatuses from Oahu to bolster PTA’s firefighting capabilities in the Big Island’s Saddle marked the first such movement of equipment in this way in Hawaii, said U.S. Army Garrison Lt. Col. Christopher Marquez.
“This hasn’t been done before,” he said.
It was a joint effort between the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force testing a system to streamline the process for the Army to get the vehicles needed, where they’re needed and when they’re needed.
“This paves the way for future operations,” Marquez said, noting with a system in place, duties like getting hazardous materials clearances, determining tie-down methods and weighing vehicles, among others, will take less time. “It’s really critical we figure out what is the process for us to rapidly respond from Oahu.”
Last year, Marquez said, the Army assessed moving such equipment via boat, but using aircraft speeds up the process — from 24 hours to 30 minutes one way. In the case of a request for additional equipment, the Army can usually get the equipment loaded up the next day and ready to fly.
“We could bring within a couple of hours four trucks” once ready, said Marquez. “This shows a great joint cooperation and the ability to develop a system for the future to rapidly respond.”
Thursday’s equipment move from Oahu utilized an active U.S. Air Force crew from the 535th Airlift Squadron out of Hickam Air Force Base on Oahu, which shares the C-17 named the “Spirit of Kamehameha — Imua” with the 204th Airlift Squadron, a unit of the 154th Wing under the Hawaii Air National Guard.
The two brush trucks transported bring to three the number of brush trucks stationed at Pohakuloa, which is situated in the Saddle between Mauna Loa and Maunakea at an elevation around 6,000 feet, said PTA Fire Chief Eric Moller.
“These vehicles enhance our ability to respond,” he said, explaining that multiple apparatus able to battle a fire on multiple flanks reduces the time it takes to extinguish a blaze.
And, there are still five more brush trucks that could be brought over to the Big Island in the event PTA needs reinforcements.
PTA, through a mutual aid agreement, assists Hawaii County and the state with operations in the region, spanning from mile marker 19 on Daniel K. Inouye Highway to the highway’s terminus at Mamalahoa Highway in South Kohala and all the way up both summits. They respond not only to fires, but also automobile accidents and search and rescue operations.
“That whole area is first responded to by our fire department at PTA,” said Marquez. “That’s a pretty big mission.”
And, their work goes beyond that to assisting with natural disasters. Most recently, the Army helped remove fallen albizia trees in the wake of Tropical Storm Iselle in 2014. They also helped following the October 2006 earthquakes by evacuating Kona Community Hospital and conducting structural assessments in West Hawaii.
“It’s not just fires, it’s disasters. We respond to anything Civil Defense asks to helps with,” Marquez said.