Fire Chief Kazuo Todd told the Hawaii County Fire Commission during its monthly meeting Wednesday that a firefighter from a Pahala volunteer company was severely injured Friday while fighting a long-burning underground fire in Ka‘u.
Todd said the volunteer firefighter — whom he didn’t identify because of medical privacy laws but the Tribune-Herald has learned is Lizzy Stabo — remains in the burn unit at Straub Medical Center in Honolulu with second- and third-degree burns to the lower half of her body.
“It’s been burning underground, now, for almost five months,” Todd said about the fire at Honuapo. “We’ve had four injuries, total. Three were civilians.”
He said signs have been put in the area to warn the public. The area, which was once sugar cane land, is covered in a cane pulp residue called bagasse, which is burned as fuel.
“It looks like regular ground, but it’s burnt out underneath,” Todd said after the meeting. “And there’s this air pocket that’s 400 degrees, 500 degrees. And (Stabo) fell in up to her waist.”
Stabo was wearing the proper protective gear, he said.
Todd commended Capt. Kaaina Keawe for rescuing Stabo from the hole known informally as an “imu,” because it retains heat like an underground pit dug to roast a whole pig. Todd said the ground was so hot Stabo couldn’t use her hands and arms to lift herself out.
“She was stuck in there for a little bit, so (Keawe) had to grab her out and carry her out,” he said.
Asked about Stabo, Todd said, “She’s in her 50s, but in excellent shape, one of our go-getters. She’s an amazing person to volunteer, always a pleasure to work with. She’s been volunteering over a decade now.”
Todd said Stabo is “in good spirits.”
“She’s sent us pictures of the burns. It’s a significant injury,” he said.
“She’s a mother, but all of her children are grown. She’s trying to bring her daughter over from the mainland, and we’re trying to arrange for that through some of our charitable foundations to handle some of those expenses.”
Dozens have sent well-wishes and prayers to Stabo via social media, and she has replied to at least several.
“This is the most painful thing in my life I have ever dealt with,” Stabo said to one Facebook poster while telling him to be safe.
A GoFundMe page titled “Please donate to Liz’s personal emergency…” had raised $11,177 of a $15,000 goal as of Wednesday afternoon, with more than 150 donors.
“She worked for me at Flyin’ Hawaiian Coffee for 8 years,” wrote Judy Knapp, who organized the online fundraiser. “She’s been a volunteer firefighter in Ka‘u for over a decade, has worked with Red Cross and Team Rubicon, as well as manning COVID-19 test sites in Ka‘u.
“I feel it’s time for our community to help Liz.”
A Monday update on the fundraising page by Knapp said Stabo is “facing a 2-4 week hospital stay, and misses having friends nearby.”
“Since she’s in a sterile burn unit she can’t have visitors,” Knapp said, adding there’s “a strong possibility she’ll need skin grafts on her right calf.”
Todd told commissioners there will be an investigation of the incident.
“One of my major goals as fire chief is, if anyone gets injured at work, we’re going to investigate to make sure we’re following all safety procedures and doing everything we could,” he said.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.