(BIVN) – The August 8th wildfires in Kohala were “unlike anything” Hawaiʻi County firefighters had ever fought in their careers, said Fire Chief Kazuo Todd, who reflected on the day during a recent Waimea town hall meeting.
Chief Todd spoke via Zoom during the September 7th Waimea Community Association meeting. The hybrid town hall featured “Wildfire Reflections” on the one-month anniversary of the Red Flag Warning event that forced evacuations in Kohala and turned deadly on Maui, where it destroyed the town of Lāhaina and claimed 115 lives.
“We actually had seven fires that day” on Hawaiʻi island, Chief Todd said. “We got, I guess, pretty lucky on our island, in some ways.”
“We lost one major structure down in Mauna Kea Beach area, a large warehouse structure,” said Chief Todd. “We had about seven structures that sustained damage that we were able to put out, and stop them from actually burning down, so we didn’t lose any residential structures.”
Chief Todd described the extraordinary conditions fire crews faced that day. A High Wind Warning was in effect, due to a strong pressure gradient between Hurricane Dora, passing far to the south of the island, and high pressure to the north. The National Weather Service measured a wind gust of 82 mph in Kawaihae at 4:35 p.m. on August 8, along with several gusts over 50 mph throughout that same day across South Kohala.
“The sheer amount of pressure of the wind was coming in, and pushing people around,” said Todd. “The inability to have hose streams even go straight, because the wind would blow it behind you, instead of in front of you. Some of our lighter personnel had to hold on to the truck so they didn’t get blown down the street.”
“Our normal suppression plan is built around dozers and helicopter drops, and then our vehicles to catch the fire at the edges,” the fire chief explained. “Our helicopters were down because the high winds make it too dangerous to fly. The winds were driving flames faster than dozers can get around it, and we’re just scrambling to get out there.”
“We have a unique situation,” Todd said. “We’re the only island that has volunteer firefighters. I have another 18 stations with volunteers that no other island in the State has access to, right now, and that – inclusive of my paid personnel – allows us to dump, honestly, more resources on a fire then other County agencies throughout the State, short of maybe Oʻahu where they have 44 stations.” Chief Todd added that the County also has an “amazing working relationship” with the Department of Forestry and Wildlife, the National Park Service, and the military fire department up on Pōhakuloa Training Area, “and all of them were on this fire working with us,” he said.
“It was an extremely touch-and-go event,” Chief Todd said, “and our personnel went out there and, in concert with our other agencies on the island, did an amazing amazing job to stop and keep our fires from spreading that far.”
The cause of the August 8th Kohala fires is undetermined, Chief Todd said. However, he added that “it is believed that they were electrical, but we don’t have any evidence, for sure, on that. As of right now, we don’t have any evidence that would suggest it was arson, or anything else going on, in that region.”