Firefighters Tuesday continued battling flames and dousing hotspots within the 62.5-square-mile burn area of the Big Island’s largest wildland fire in history.
State, county, federal and private assets spent a fifth day working the fire’s three fronts in Puukapu, Waikii and above Waikoloa Village, said Hawaii Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd. Operations included water drops by county and three U.S. Army aircraft, ground crews dousing accessible hotspots and bulldozers working to finish cutting breaks around the fire that scorched 40,000-plus acres from its origin up Mana Road to Puukapu and Waikii Ranch and down to within a few miles of Waikoloa Village.
As of press-time Tuesday, the blaze sparked Friday morning, was 75% contained, up from 50% late Monday, said Todd. He hoped to have the blaze nearly contained overnight with resources beginning to demobilize.
“We are very confident that we’ve got this under control and while we’ll still see that smoking and underground burning for weeks, I don’t foresee this thing jumping and running anytime soon,” Todd said.
Hundreds of firefighters worked the blaze after it broke out around 11 a.m. Friday in ranch land off Mana Road. Initial reports indicate the fire may have been sparked during a pipe repair, however, the cause is still under investigation.
Despite firefighters’ efforts battling the flames amid high winds with gusts topping 40 mph, two homes were destroyed in the Department of Hawaiian Homelands Puukapu Subdivision in Waimea overnight Saturday into Sunday. On Tuesday, Hawaii County spokesman Cyrus Johnasen said officials were in the neighborhood performing damage assessments with information to be released in the coming days as to the extent of the destruction.
The blaze also forced an hours-long evacuation of thousands of residents and visitors lodging in Waikoloa Village Sunday afternoon after flames crossed Highway 190, also known as Mamalahoa Highway.
Among those to evacuate was Donald Morgan, who’s lived in a quaint home on the mauka side of Mamalahoa Highway near mile marker 9 for more than 16 years.
“The smoke was really, really bad Friday-Saturday, and then Sunday is when I woke up and everybody started showing up,” he said, explaining fire trucks, bulldozers and other apparatus were entering the 4-acre property as police officers knocked on his side door advising him to leave.
Morgan, who’s lived on the Big Island since 1969 building dozens of homes and moved to the acreage in South Kohala in 2005, said he left around 9:30 a.m. as the fire took off toward Waikoloa Village.
He grabbed some money and his loyal 18-year-old dog, Bob, and hit the road, leaving behind most of his possessions. Unable to go to a hotel with his dog, Morgan opted to stay with friends in Keauhou and returned Tuesday morning to find his home still standing amid smoke, ash and loads of blowing dust from the firebreak that kept flames just feet from his abode. Firefighters occasionally drove through, watering down hotspots just 20 feet from the structure.
While Morgan and Bob safely made it out, his 2-year-old cat, Kitty, which he’d bottle fed from a young age after finding him as an abandoned kitten, remained missing Tuesday. Morgan’s holding out hope the feline, which he proudly said could reach to his counter while standing on his hindlegs, will return.
“It’s been scary a few times,” he said of his years living essentially off-the-grid and about 10 miles from the nearest homes.
The first close-call came shortly after he moved there to build a home for his landlord, whose son was attending a private school in Waimea and needed a way to shorten the commute from South Kona. Morgan recalled his landlord contacting him that August about the fire, which was a ways off and makai of the home, leaving him not too worried.
“About 20 minutes later, it was only a mile or so away,” Morgan remembered, adding winds were blowing in a completely different direction than normal, sending the fire up from Waikoloa, toward the property.
He quickly packed up as many things as he could, grabbed faithful Bob and hit the road for Kona — along with about 5,000 Waikoloa Village residents who were forced to flee the 25,000-acre fire. After three or four days, Morgan returned to find the partially constructed home still standing, though flames came up to the side of a garage that’s now his living room and kitchen.
Most recently, in November, a fire was sparked by welding just south of his property, torching more than 1,100 acres before firefighters got the upper hand. Luckily, the wind, which was whipping around 50 mph, pushed the flames away from his home.
Despite the close-calls over the years and seemingly endless fire threat, Morgan has no plans to leave soon.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.