Roads remain closed as fire continues

  • Flames can be seen from the Waikoloa Post Office Wednesday evening. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Roads remain closed near Waikoloa Village Thursday evening due to a brush fire, prompting Hawaii County Civil Defense to advise motorists to avoid the area and round the island’s south as an alternate route.

The ongoing blaze that’s scorched 10,000 acres and counting forced the closure of Route 190, or Mamalahoa Highway, from Old Saddle Road to Puu Lani Ranch. As of 6 p.m. Thursday evening, it had also closed Waikoloa Road from Paniolo Avenue to Route 190, according to Civil Defense.

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That agency said traffic was “extremely backed up” on Route 19, also known as Queen Kaahumanu Highway, and Kawaihae Road and instead advised the use of Route 11 through South Kona, Ka‘u and Puna for motorists headed east or west.

Emergency responders meanwhile continued to fight the North Kona brush fire that has burned thousands of acres of land in the area near Waikoloa.

West Hawaii Battalion Chief Michael Grace said as of 5 p.m. Thursday that the fire had burned 10,000 acres, up from 5,300 acres earlier in the day.

Grace said the fire wasn’t threatening any homes as of the afternoon, noting that the fire had pushed “pretty far south,” still below Route 190, Mamalahoa Highway. Firefighters continued to work on fire breaks, including between the fire and highway where there was still some active burning.

Police closed a stretch of that road Wednesday afternoon between the 7 mile marker and Waikoloa Road because of the fire — the day the fire ignited.

Throughout that day, choppers dropped water on the blaze, competing with strong, variable winds that fanned the flames. By nightfall, nervous residents gathered by the post office to watch the flames.

“It’s scary,” Waikoloa Village resident Joanne Willard said Wednesday night as she watched the flames glow.

By Thursday morning, the fire had burned 5,300 acres, Grace said. While about 75 percent of the fire was contained, there was still some active burning in the area.

Shortly after 10 a.m. police closed Waikoloa Road between Route 190 and Paniolo Avenue, the road that carries traffic into Waikoloa Village. Police also closed Route 190 from Old Saddle Road to Kaiminani Drive in Kailua-Kona.

Among those keeping close watch on the fire’s movements was Jen Lawson, executive director of the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative.

That organization is dedicated to preserving and protecting the lowland dry forest ecosystem, which has some of the rarest forest types in Hawaii, and houses native species like ukiuki and wiliwili. In total, the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative manages an area close to 400 acres, Lawson said, including a 275-acre fenced preserve.

Thursday afternoon, Lawson said the fire appeared to be approaching the preserve’s mauka edge.

She said there are fire breaks at the preserve, given how fire-prone the area is, including a 65-foot wide break cleared of vegetation along that mauka edge, so they were hopeful it would keep the fire at bay.

If a fire were to enter the preserve, she said, it could put native trees like the wiliwili at risk.

Many of the trees in the preserve, she said, are old and produce a large quantity of seeds that are used to restore the ecosystem. And any damage to the fence, she added, could lead to goats entering the preserve.

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Lawson said they have been communicating with the fire department as the situation has developed.

Grace said the fire appeared to be stable on the side close to the village and that the preserve was likely to be OK, also saying there were no homes or structures at risk.

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