An evacuation order Sunday afternoon that prompted thousands to flee Waikoloa Village was lifted at 7 p.m. as firefighters continued to battle a wildland fire that’s scorched more than 62.5 square miles and consumed two homes in South Kohala.
However, officials cautioned that residents and visitors alike in the South Kohala town — as well as Puukapu in Waimea — should be prepared to evacuate should conditions change.
As of 5 p.m. Sunday, the fire, which was not contained, was estimated at 40,000 acres spanning from Mana Road and Puukapu in Waimea to Waikii Ranch and down to within a few miles of Waikoloa Village. Hawaii County officials were unable to provide an update on the fire’s size at 7 p.m. because helicopters could not fly the blaze’s perimeter due to weather conditions.
“We have several active fires at this time across/west of Highway 190; fingers that have encroached over the highway,” said Hawaii Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd. “We currently have crews working to contain those and prevent them from reaching in to the Waikoloa region, however, based on the prevailing winds and weather patterns for the evening, we are looking at lifting the mandatory evacuation.”
He advised those choosing to return to expect smoky conditions.
“Families that can find other accommodations or relatives or have other places to stay are recommended to do so. At this time, conditions within the communities are likely to be a little bit smoky and potentially those with health issues and others are suggested to find some place else to stay for the evening,” Todd said.
American Red Cross Pacific Island Region Hawaii County Director Marty Moran said the shelter set up at Old Kona Airport Park will remain open through this morning in the event another evacuation is ordered. More than 100 people had checked in at the Kona facility, with about 50 inside at the time the mandatory evacuation was lifted. All had left by 7:30 p.m.
A shelter that was opened Saturday at Waimea District Park for Waimea residents escaping the flames will also remain open through this morning, though no one was at the site Sunday night, he said. Overnight Saturday, as the fire burned in Puukapu, one family of four occupied the gym and two others stayed in their vehicles with pets, he said.
The lifting of the evacuation could be short-lived as the forecast is calling for strong winds to pick back up today with sustained winds around 18 to 20 mph and gusts up to 40 mph, according to Todd.
“At this time, we would like folks to feel safe but not forget that this is an emergency and that it is not changing from an emergency at this time. All that Chief Todd is saying is that right now homes are not in danger. That’s as of right now, that doesn’t mean they could be in danger later this evening, or early tomorrow morning or even later this week — so be on high alert,” said Johnasen.
Highway 190, also known as Mamalahoa Highway, remained closed as of 7 p.m. between Ala Ohia and Waikoloa roads, as did the Old Saddle Road from its junction at Highway 190 to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway. Waikoloa Road was opened to returning residents Sunday night though fire operations continued above the town.
The chief Sunday commended the various paid and volunteer county, state and federal assets battling the fire that broke out at 11 a.m. Friday above the paved area of Mana Road in the Puukapu region and has been fanned by strong winds, with gusts up to 40 mph. Ground crews are being assisted by helicopter drops, which includes five U.S. Army aircraft, as well as bulldozers working to cut breaks around the flames.
“At this time, things are looking good and we’re hopeful to at least maintain our current stable stance with the fire prevention efforts,” Todd said at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Despite firefighters’ efforts, at two homes were destroyed in the Department of Hawaiian Homelands Puukapu Subdivision in Waimea. Johnasen said at 7 p.m. Sunday that the number of “inundated” structures stood at two.
Television station KITV4 spoke with Joshua Kihe Sunday morning after he and his family lost his Puukapu home to the fire.
“I’m homeless right now, but I definitely need to think of a plan. It’s a life-changer,” Kihe told the Oahu news station, adding he plans to rent in the meantime.
The American Red Cross, which is working with the county to assess damage, will be reaching out to assist those who lost homes in the fire with financial aid, counseling and even assistance in getting prescription medications and eyeglasses.
“We will be in that mode tomorrow,” Moran said.
Email Chelsea Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.