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Underground Fire Forces County to Fence off 100 Acres in Kaʻū

By Tiffany DeMasters
October 8, 2021, 10:00 AM HST
* Updated October 8, 9:31 AM
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Public lands north of the estuary at Honuʻapo in Kaʻū are closed effective immediately as an underground fire, ignited about six months ago, continues to burn.

The duration of the closure is unknown at this time. Hawaiʻi County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd told Big Island Now this morning, Oct. 8, they believe the blaze went underground after a brush fire back in April or May. In an effort to protect the public and create a plan of attack, the county will be fencing off about 100 acres of land where known hot spots have been discovered.

Thermal image of an underground fire burning beneath public lands north of the estuary at Honuʻapo in Kaʻū. (PC: Hawaiʻi County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd)

“It’s been a little difficult because the fire doesnʻt show itself,” Todd said. We don’t know where it’s burning or how long it’s burning.”

To date, four individuals have suffered significant burn injuries, including a volunteer firefighter who fell into a hole waist-deep while walking in the area.

“It looks just like normal soil,” Todd said. “Eventually when the wind picks up, the hot spots come to the surface.”

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Todd said the firefighter was injured on Sept. 3, 2021. She was taken to Straub Burn Center on Oʻahu where she’s undergone a couple of surgeries. While still hospitalized, Todd said, she remains in good spirits.

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Additionally, county officials say there have been other close calls related to active response to these fires.

Todd said underground fires aren’t that unusual for the Big Island.

“There are areas in Waikoloa where it’s known to happen, it depends,” the chief said.

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Todd said the Kaʻū blaze is burning beneath an area of open land near the ocean. Aside from the fire burning underground, the chief said it is unknown who owns the land and there are a lot of cultural sites located in the area.

“Instead of going into the area, we’re fencing off the area and figuring out if we can use bulldozers,” Todd said.

Eventually, Todd hopes to use equipment to dig up an area and pour a lot of water into the ground.

As a general word of caution, the chief said the best thing to do if someone sees fire in the area is to call 911.

“You never know what hazards might exist,” he said.

The fire is burning through bagasse or sugarcane waste in the area. The gate that provides access from Highway 11 will be closed and locked, and signage posted. Whittington Beach Park, which is adjacent to these lands at Honu‘apo, remains open along with the areas south of the Honu‘apo Estuary.

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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