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245 Water Drops Help Douse Historic Big Island Fire

By Tiffany DeMasters
August 6, 2021, 5:45 PM HST
* Updated August 6, 7:00 PM
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The Mana Road brush fire is 95% contained as of Friday morning.

Hawai´i Fire Chief Kazuo Todd said crews are currently addressing flare-ups within the scorched 40,000 acres spanning the Hāmākua and South Kohala Districts. A lot of the work going on, the chief noted, is primarily on the mauka side of the blaze toward Maunakea.

Courtesy of PTA

On Friday, Todd said various departments were working within their jurisdictions of the fire. The Hawai´i Fire Department addressed hot spots along Highway 190, DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife kept watch of the lands scorched toward Waikoloa, the US Army stationed at Põhakuloa Training Area (PTA) continued to work on flare-ups on the mauka side of Maunakea, and Parker Ranch kept watch over their land by Mana Road.

The number of resources thrown at the historic fire, Todd said, was impressive. At the peak of the blaze, there were nine helicopters dousing flames with water drops, 21 dozers and more than 140 personnel.

“The four Black Hawk helicopters and Chinook that were brought were critical in capturing the fire and stopping it in its path,” Todd said.

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As of Thursday evening, 245 buckets of water were dropped on the blaze, more than 170,000 gallons in total. More than 70 flight hours were recorded covering the Hāmākua and South Kohala Districts.

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Hawai´i National Guard Spc. Ariel Young-Ziegler is part of the refueling operation responsible for keeping the aircraft working.

“She is responsible for fueling these aircraft as quick as possible to get them back in the air and on station,” said Staff Sgt. Gregory Lum Ho, who drove the truck carrying the fuel. “A lot of people see only the action that’s going on and not what happens behind the scenes.”

The brush fire started Friday, July 30. Military helicopters were brought onto the scene Saturday. Since then, Young-Ziegler distributed more than 6,000 gallons of fuel. On Monday alone, Lum Ho said Yount-Ziegler issued close to 3,000 gallons of jet fuel between five aircraft during a 14-hour day.

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“There are tons of others that make things happen but without her volunteering, this mission may not be as successful,” Lum Ho said. “These are the people that need to be recognized.”

Pilots were typically flying from sunrise to sunset, depending on the weather and smoke in the air. That same day, high winds fanned the flames over Highway 190 toward Waikoloa Village.

At the height of the fire, Young-Ziegler was fueling helicopters every two hours.

PC: Staff Sgt. Gregory Lum Ho

“You never really think about it while your fueling,” the specialist said. “I didn’t know we were going through that much. Everything just happened so quickly.”

This was Young-Ziegler’s first time working a large brush fire. Every time a helicopter flew back from the field, she waited until it winded down before her fuel driver, Lum Ho, drove her up to the birds.

Making sure she was grounded and not transmitting electricity, she pulled hoses from the truck and hooked them to the choppers to fuel them up.

“The hoses are kind of heavy,” said Young-Ziegler, who is currently the only guard fueler on the island as others are currently on the COVID-19 task force.

“It is exhausting, but we gotta keep the aircraft going,” she continued. “If there’s no fuel, they can’t fly.”

A civilian employee also assisted in fueling helicopters at PTA.

The US Army contributed to the fight with 15 PTA firefighters working on the ground crew. Five dozers and four PTA heavy equipment operators created fire breaks across the affected areas.

Seven Wild Land Firefighters from US Army, based on O’ahu, also assisted on the ground crew and dozens of staff helped to cook, feed and support the frontline workers.

“Our team here at US Army Garrison Pōhakuloa is proud to be a part of this amazing community and the overall effort to fight this massive wildland fire. It’s been truly incredible to see the US Army team here respond to support our community. I am very proud of everyone involved,” said Kevin Cronin, Commander PTA.

Todd expressed gratitude to the men and women who worked throughout the night to get control of the fire.

“I want to put out a thank you to personnel who came back on their days off to basically eat smoke and sweat to put this fire out,” Todd said. “The sheer number of guys who called to say they were available really warms my heart.”

The chief said personnel from Maui also came to assist. An Australian incident command also offered to come out.

“It has been an awesome experience to be able to work and focus on the things that matter for the community,” Todd said. “While I’m new to the position, there’s a variety of personnel willing to help out.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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