By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Firefighters battling two wildfires in the Pahala area got some welcome relief on Wednesday in the form of rain.
“That helped us a lot,” Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Arbles said Wednesday afternoon.
The Fire Department closed its command center at Hawaii County Civil Defense headquarters in Hilo, and police reported shortly before 3 p.m. that Hawaii Belt Road (Highway 11) was reopened to traffic in both directions. The main traffic artery through the Ka‘u District had been closed from the 46-mile marker to Kamani Street in Pahala town for more than 24 hours.
Arbles said the smaller mauka fire along Cane Haul Road was “95 percent contained.”
“We have a lot of rain in that area, so it’s helping us out drastically,” he said.
Fifteen units, including a county helicopter and two privately owned bulldozers, continued to battle the larger makai blaze. Arbles said that about 40 individuals, including 27 firefighters, Public Works employees, plus volunteers from Pahala continued to keep the blaze at bay. It had charred an estimated 5,200 acres as of Wednesday afternoon, but had not claimed any houses or other structures. Battalion Chief Michael Hayashida described the fire as “50 percent” contained and Arbles expressed optimism that the tide was turning in the firefighters’ favor.
“Our problem is at the 49-mile marker in a small area,” he said. “When (the fire) jumped the road, there’s thick brush and we had to move our dozers, so that took some time, to bring them up from the south end … and cut a fire break in the jump area.”
Ka‘u Hospital plans to reopen its rural health clinic today, hospital administrator Merilyn Harris said. Hospital personnel were also arranging to return 15 longterm-care facility residents, who had been evacuated to Naalehu Community Center, “by suppertime” Wednesday.
“We’ve been cleaning the facility all day today,” she said. “Every staff member from the accountants to the clinic physician has rolled up their sleeves and has been cleaning. We had some giant air blowers that Civil Defense and Hilo Medical Center have given us, and they’ve been blowing out the ‘barbecue air.’ Hilo also sent down a crew of cleaning people to help out our cleaning staff. And so we feel the environment inside is adequate.”
The Long’s pharmacy at the hospital reopened Wednesday, as well.
“The Long’s pharmacy is very important to the community because it’s the only retail pharmacy in Ka‘u. Ka‘u is as large as Oahu,” Harris said.
The hospital’s emergency room was back in operation Tuesday night.
Ka‘u Coffee Growers Cooperative President Gloria Camba said that four coffee farmers, Godofredo Mauricio, Sixto Asuncion, Melchor Fernandez and Rosita Avenue, suffered severe damage to their crops.
Camba said of Mauricio’s almost six-acre farm: “Three-fourths of his crop will be affected. He will not be able to harvest because the cherries, the green beans, are cooked. “
Asuncion lost about 500 trees to the fire, Fernandez about 200 trees, while windbreaks and several rows of coffee trees were damaged on Avenue’s farm, she said. Camba added that about 30 of her own trees were damaged.
She said Wednesday’s rain doused the smoke cloud that had enveloped Pahala.
“Thank you, Lord, because the whole night, last (Tuesday) night and this (Wednesday) morning before the rain, there was so much smoke,” Camba said.
She said she has contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ask “what we can do in order so the farmers can revive their plants.”
The blog Ka‘u Calendar News Briefs reported that all 800 acres of ML Macadamia’s orchards makai of Highway 11 were damaged, and the company’s irrigation system suffered severe damage. A call to ML on Wednesday afternoon was not returned by press time.
Many of those fighting the fires and helping Pahala to recover are volunteers.
An email from Ron Ebert, a volunteer Pahala fire captain, stated that there is “room in Pahala for additional volunteers” and at other stations islandwide. He said that an older green brush truck in a front-page Tribune-Herald photo on Wednesday is “a surplus U. S. Forest Service truck on loan” to his volunteer company, adding “if we had more and better equipment less property damage would have occurred.”
“We do not get paid … and only do it for our communities,” Ebert wrote. He said that volunteer companies from Naalehu, Discovery Harbor, Ocean View and Volcano also helped to battle the blaze, which started Monday.
Harris also praised volunteer efforts at the hospital.
“We had volunteers in here helping to clean. We had volunteers helping at the Naalehu Community Center. I think part of the reason the residents did well at Naalehu Community Center is that family members still went up there and visited with them, still sat with them, were there at mealtimes, sometimes,” she said.
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune- herald.com.