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Mass Exodus of Waikoloa Village ‘Surreal’ Experience For Evacuees

By Max Dible
August 1, 2021, 6:28 PM HST
* Updated August 2, 3:00 AM
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Waikoloa Village on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021. PC: Diana Pyle

Waikoloa Village became the site of a mass exodus Sunday afternoon, as thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate due to a massive brushfire tearing through the Big Island’s South Kohala District.

The blaze jumped Highway 190 and continued to barrel down the mountainside toward the West Hawai´i community, where residents said heavy smoke carried on its back falling ash and the scent of a barbecue. Those who went through the experience described it as “eerie” and “surreal.”

“The cloud cover and darkness and eeriness of what was going on around us made us feel like we had the pressure of limited time,” said Cole Figueira, who left for Hilo with his wife and child. “Packing up the house, deciding what’s important and what’s not, was kind of eerie.”

There was a sense of urgency among evacuees, though none of the several individuals interviewed by Big Island Now described the situation as panicked.

“We weren’t really panicked or anything, we could tell it would probably take while,” said Waikoloa resident Mark Wornson, who left town a little after 1 pm Sunday with his wife Kate and his in-laws, bound for a friend’s property near Kawaihae. “But when you’re packing up your stuff, you’re kind of looking around like, ‘I might not see any of this again.’ It’s a little scary.”

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The scene in the Village Sunday afternoon was unprecedented, which added to the qualities of strangeness and unease that were more or less ubiquitous among the thousands who moved methodically down the mountain.

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Bumper to bumper traffic was observed on Waikoloa Road for several hours, with an average travel time of approximately 45 minutes to Queen Ka´ahumanu Highway below, based on multiple reports from those who traversed that exact path.

An emergency exit was made available after authorities opened a normally locked gate that dead-ends Hulu Street, though the vast majority of vehicles left the area via the main thoroughfare, essentially a one-way-in/one-way-out path to and from the Village.

“It was a mess,” evacuee Joe Armas said. “It was stop and go — mostly stop.”

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Wornson described the situation in Waikoloa Sunday as the nightmare scenario: a massive brushfire raging now for two and a half days, already having consumed 40,000 acres and counting, and given extra life and vigor by the disastrously-timed arrival of high, unpredictable winds.

He said it was only a matter of time before something like this occurred, and that it highlights the need for another way out of town for the next time an evacuation is required.

Seeking Shelter

Most people who don’t have family or friends with whom they can immediately hunker down are headed to Old Kona Airport Park, where the Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Makaeo Events Pavilion.

Big Island Now reporters on the scene said some evacuees were lounging at tables equipped with hand sanitizer under the pavilion rooftop, while many others had chosen to remain in their vehicles. There were dozens on scene as of late afternoon Sunday, with that number expected to grow into the hundreds.

Laury Scott, Red Cross sheltering lead, said the pavilion being used as an evacuation shelter isn’t intended to last a long time.

Big Island brushfire on Saturday, July 31, 2021. PC: HFD

“We’re providing a dry roof over your head and a safe place to be,” Scott said.

She noted the shelter does have water. County officials said those who want to donate nonperishable foods or water may do so by driving to the site and dropping those items off to volunteer workers. Any other items, like blankets or medicine or dog food, must be procured individually.

An update on the state of the fire was provided at 5 pm Sunday, during which officials said the blaze is now being battled on three fronts. The weather is beginning finally to cooperate, as the National Weather Service cancelled a wind advisory for the area at around the same time.

The hope, officials said, is that the evacuation order can be rescinded within the next few hours, but that won’t happen unless the Hawai´i Fire Department can ensure there is no imminent threat to Waikoloa Village. Another update is scheduled for 7 pm Sunday evening.

Some of the Kohala Coast hotels, such as the Waikoloa Beach Marriot Resort & Spa, have opened their ballrooms as shelters for employees and their families. But renting hotel rooms isn’t really a viable option for anyone evacuating the Village. The tourism boom that has ensued post-COVID travel restrictions means most available rooms have already been rented out. Whatever rooms remain available carry hefty price tags in the range of hundreds, or even the thousands, of dollars per night. As such, if the evacuation order holds, displaced individuals could end up sheltering at Old Airport Park for multiple days.

Maya Pavane Ratcliffe evacuated the Village with her husband on Sunday and is sheltering at one of the local resorts for the time being. She said Queens’ MarketPlace has closed down, which was done, at least in part, to help keep traffic out of the area. The mass exodus from the Village, coupled with the closures of several roads including Old Saddle Road and northern sections of Highway 190, led to hours of heavy traffic.

Pavane Ratcliff said it was her understanding that some in the Village had chosen not to evacuate, despite the mandatory order, deciding instead to attempt to wait out the fire. Authorities have explained that this strategy is not advisable. Anyone residing in Waikoloa Village should leave immediately and remain outside the area until the official all-clear is given by Hawai´i County and HFD. The smoke alone will complicate any rescue attempts, should they become necessary. Those problems would only be compounded by the coming darkness.

For those who can not evacuate of their own accord, buses were shuttling people to temporary shelters from the area golf course and elementary school. If you are a resident and in need of help, contact police or fire authorities and they will assist you with evacuation.

“I feel confident that we will back in our home,” Pavane Ratcliffe said. “But I’m with my husband and my two cats, and that’s what matters. Material stuff isn’t important.”

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations.
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