The perfect storm: Maui’s Upcountry Wildfires
On Aug. 8, Brendan Balthazar woke up at 2 a.m. to a phone call that a brush fire near Kula, in the upcountry of Maui, was heading for a pasture where he had cattle. Balthazar, along with other ranchers and the upcountry community, worked for the next 36 hours fighting one of the worst wildfires in the history of the Hawaiian islands.
Apart from the devastating fire that took the town of Lahaina on the west side of Maui, three other fires raged that day in rural central Maui, all within 20 miles of one another, in Kula, Kihei and Olinda.
“The first fire started in Olinda and went through a lot of Haleakala ranch land and some smaller land owners,” said Ken Miranda, general manager of the Kaonoulu Ranch, a family-owned ranch in the upcountry for more than 100 years.
Miranda filled up his water truck and drove to help fight the fire, having to stop and move trees off the road to get there. Trees and powerlines lay on the ground, trees that had snapped in half from the wind brought on by Hurricane Dora. It’s been confirmed that the fire began after a tree fell across a power line, igniting a blaze in a very dense forest.
The fire jumped into the Haleakala ranch pastures and took off downhill, encouraged by the 60- to 80-mph winds.
“As we were dealing with that fire upcountry that ultimately consumed about 600 acres of our pastures, there was a separate fire that ignited a couple of miles away in the residential neighborhood of Kula,” said Scott Meidell, president and CEO of Haleakala Ranch, one of the oldest and largest ranches on Maui, originating in 1888 with almost 30,000 acres to this day.
The fire department turned its concern toward residential neighborhoods and worked to protect houses that were in the trajectory of the fire – a difficult task with the winding gulches, forest area and rough terrain that ecompasses the upcountry.
Kula is home to almost 7,000 people living on the west mountainside of the dormant volcano Haleakala. Its elevation provides spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean through the clouds that hover over Maui. That day, 19 homes in Kula burned to the ground.
“We helped the firefighters fight until they told me that we weren’t going to be able to save my house,” said Doug Wagner who lost his home in Kula. He noticed the fire around noon and helped the firefighters battle the wildfire that was burning in the gulch near his home for eight hours until they had to evacuate.
At 3 p.m., the west Maui fire in Lahaina became the biggest concern and firefighters were sent
Another fire was born and raged across pastures, consuming 2,600 acres of the Haleakala ranch, 100 acres of Kaonoulu ranch land and about 3,000 acres of Mahi Pono agricultural land.
This fire moved quickly toward the town of Kihei.
Balthazar, 73, has owned and operated Diamond B Ranch on Maui since 1968. He leases property all over the island for his 550-cow herd. He has leased one particular property from the Haleakala Ranch for more than 25 years. After fighting fires for more than 12 hours, he got another call about the inferno threatening his cattle.
“I grabbed my tractor and my water truck, and I started cutting a fire break to keep the fire from taking my corral,” he said.
The firefighters were battling to protect houses near Kihei, Kula and Olinda while the ranchers were fighting the brush fires from their own pasture properties along with construction workers. This was unlike anything Balthazar had ever seen. And he was a firefighter in Maui County for 38 years.
“When I was a firefighter, I never fought any wildfires like this,” Balthazar said. “In all of the years
that I have been living, I have never seen a fire as bad as this one and not because it devastated Lahaina. It was just the perfect storm.”
Was this a recipe for the perfect storm? The area where the wildfire started had a lot of dry grass, and the fires ignited during the end of summer, in one of the longest periods Maui’s gone without rain.
“I don’t think we’ve had rain since March,” Balthazar said. “Usually we get rain until the end of
Meidell echoed similar sentiments.
“The unusually dry conditions in terms of relative humidity, combined with the strong winds, the ongoing drought and the low humidity, I think created a perfect storm for this situation,” he said.
Another major factor that led to a prolonged containment was the strictly ground-based fire management, utilizing private-sector bulldozers, equipment and water trucks to directly confront
the fire and install fire breaks.
“Almost every fire that I have ever been involved with or saw, even after I retired, the helicopters could get to the unreachable places,” Balthazar said. “But because of the winds, the helicopters could not be used to get ahead of the fires.”
Balthazar lost 500 acres of grazing pasture, but most of his losses were wind damage related to the blaze. He had pipelines break and water tanks torn apart.
“The water tanks we put on the mountain are strategic,” Balthazar said. “To lose one is to lose the whole system.”
The particular water tanks Balthazar has to replace are a part of a relay pump system that pushes water up the mountain, 6,000 feet in elevation, that he installed on a piece of property he is now fighting with the state to keep. The 3,000 acres has been used for ranching for more than 100 years and is now being claimed for conservation.
Standing at the top of Balthazar’s property looking down, the damage in Kula is clearly visible. Perfectly painted houses stand right next to houses burnt to the ground. Grass patches are so far between one another that it almost seems as if there were 100 little fires instead of one big one. Big trees stand tall next to a pile of uprooted trees.
“It’s a miracle actually that more houses in the upcountry didn’t burn” Meidell said. “I think it’s just an incredible picture of collaboration and teamwork across private entity and public agency
Wildfires aren’t rare in central Maui, but the conditions of this fire could have resulted in a lot more damages had it not been for the community and the management of the land.
“People working at the ranches really understand the history and the nature of wildfires,” Meidell said. “Managing fuel loads is an important priority when it comes to rotational grazing so fire is always in our awareness.”
Balthazar can only imagine the possibilities of what could have been had the grass not been grazed. He learned a while ago that fire is a living thing. In order for it to live, it has to consume something.
“There’s a lot of strategy that’s going to be discussed in the preventative topic,” he said. “I hope that the focus does not go away from land management. Ag will take care of the land. It takes the fuel down.”
Meidell and the Haleakala Ranch lost 3,100 acres, 100,000 feet of fencing and 40 miles of water lines. The ranch is using this destruction to reevaluate its paddock configuration as well as its livestock program.
“All of us who steward the mountain – the ranches and the large landowners – have been at this for a long time and have experienced fires over many generations, but this is truly of a higher magnitude than any of us have ever seen,” Mediell said. “I think it’s time for us to recognize that maybe there are new realities and to take another look at how we’re mitigating these prospective risks and evolve our land-management programs accordingly.”