UPDATE: Highway 11 Reopened As Rain Aids Firefighters
***Updated at 3 p.m. with information on the fire’s containment and the Highway 11 reopening.***
Highway 11 was reopened to traffic shortly before 3 p.m. today as rain assisted firefighters in securing the fire’s perimeter along the roadway.
Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Arbles said rain fell for about two hours at mid-day in the previously parched area.
“That helped drastically,” he said.
For the third straight day, firefighters continued to battle the wildfire that threatened Pahala earlier in the week.
As of early this afternoon it had burned an estimated 4,839 acres, an increase of more than 2,900 acres from 24 hours earlier.
Highway 11, the main arterial between Ka‘u and the rest of East Hawaii, was closed Tuesday afternoon from Pahala town to the 46-mile marker, a stretch of about five miles.
During the closure, police were escorting convoys of private vehicles through that stretch when conditions allowed.
Over the past day the fire had burned right up to the highway from the 51-mile marker near Pahala north to the 49-mile marker. At that point the fire jumped the highway, but firefighters were able to contain the breakout.
Flames threatened homes on both sides of the highway at around the 49-mile marker but firefighters managed to protect them with firebreaks.
No other structures have been threatened except for a 10,000-gallon diesel tank belonging to the macadamia nut plantation that firefighters were able to protect earlier this week using bulldozed firebreaks.
Arbles said this afternoon that the fire remains about 40% contained, but that was primarily because the fire’s broad southern perimeter was unsecured. However, Arbles said that is not a major concern because that part of the fire is approaching barren areas of lava with little fuel to feed it.
The emergency room at Ka‘u Hospital in Pahala was reopened at about 7 p.m. Tuesday. The entire hospital had been closed Monday when the fire reached within 100 yards of its access street.
Arbles said the crews are cleaning the 21-bed hospital of black soot and are trying to get its 15 long-term patients back into the facility today.
When the hospital closed, 14 of the patients were moved to temporary quarters at Na‘alehu Community Center while the 15th was taken in by relatives.
Because the fire has moved to the north, the smoke has dissipated in the Pahala area, Arbles said.
Another fire two miles above the highway southwest of Pahala has burned about 400 acres. Arbles said today that fire is 95% contained and its status remains relatively unchanged.
Weather conditions in the area this morning included high humidity of 92% and winds out of the north at 8 mph. Arbles said the winds tend to be onshore breezes during the day and from the mountain during the evening, so the Fire Department is having to move its resources to accommodate the shifts.
The National Weather Service forecast for the area called for easterly winds at 10 to 15 mph with higher gusts today with partly cloudy conditions and a 20% chance of isolated showers in the afternoon.
Helicopters making water drops are battling the blaze along with fire companies from Pahala, Naalehu, Volcano and Pahoa stations, with some assistance from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The county Department of Public Works has provided four tanker trucks with a total capacity of 12,500 gallons which are being used to douse flames near the highway.
Arbles said the cause of the fires is still under investigation.