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Volunteer Firefighter on Road to Recovery After Falling Into Underground Fire

By Tiffany DeMasters
October 26, 2021, 9:52 AM HST
* Updated October 28, 11:50 AM
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A Hawaiʻi volunteer firefighter is still recovering from third-degree burns after falling into a hole about eight weeks ago where an underground fire was raging in Kaʻu.

After receiving treatment at Straub Burn Center in Honolulu for months, Elizabeth Stabo returned to Kailua-Kona on Monday. Continuing her long-term rehabilitation at Regency Hualalai, Stabo has been relearning how to do basic things from bathing to going to the bathroom to walking.

“I did 20 steps yesterday (Oct. 19),” Stabo told Big Island Now on Wednesday, Oct. 20. “Itʻs amazing the things we take for granted. Iʻm so grateful to be alive.”

Elizatbeth Stabo left. (PC: Elizabeth Stabo)

The Kaʻu brush fire, located on public lands north of the estuary at Honuʻapo, was first ignited in April. Since then, the flames have gone underground, said Hawaiʻi Fire Chief Kazuo Todd.

Stabo responded to the brush fire on her birthday, Sept. 3. It was the first fire she’d responded to after returning from the mainland a couple of months prior. She said she was unaware that the fire was burning underground.

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Stabo described the blaze as a small brush fire.

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“When you were on this fire site it looked like a normal fire,” said Stabo, who has been a volunteer firefighter in Nāʻālehu for about 10 years. “It didn’t look like anything was going on underground.”

After about a half-hour of mopping up, Stabo said there was a flare-up. She, along with Capt. Kaʻaina Keawe, started heading out to it with hoses.

Stabo described the hole she fell into like a trap door.

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“As fast as I was standing, I was falling,” she recalled. “It was like quicksand.”

Stabo had fallen into a hole waist deep that was filled with flames. With the fire burning the vegetation underground, there was nothing to support the walking surface.

“I just screamed as I could feel everything go through my body,” she said.

Stabo said she never would’ve gotten out if not for Keawe.

Keawe, normally stationed at the Keauhou fire station, was filling in for another captain the day of Stabo’s accident.

Keawe remembers Stabo’s scream of intense pain and fear. He said it was fortunate he was close by when she fell in.

“I just did what anyone else would’ve done — she fell in and (I) grabbed her,” Keawe said.

Thermal image of underground fire. (PC: Chief Kazuo Todd)

Keawe has stayed in touch with the volunteer firefighter throughout her stay at Straub. He described Stabo as special.

“She’s one of the toughest girls I’ve ever known,” the captain said. “The more I’ve conversed with her, the more I’ve been inspired by who she is.”

Stabo has since undergone two surgeries and two full skin grafts. She said she doesn’t know what the future of her recovery looks like because she hasn’t asked the doctors.

“I’m physically strong. I think I’ll be able to walk,” said, adding she’s hopeful she’ll make a full recovery.

The accident has been overwhelming for Stabo on a physical, mental and emotional level.

“I have two choices: one to keep going, the other to not, and I’ve got too much to live for,” she said.

If she heals enough to return to the fire department, Stabo said she’ll never go on the frontline again.

“I can’t look at fire without getting nauseous,” she said.

Returning to the department will depend on how well she’s physically healing and her mental state down the road.

Keawe said Stabo’s positive attitude throughout this ordeal is a testament to her character.

“She texts me and asks me how I’m doing, and I don’t deserve that, especially from her,” Keawe said. “She’s the real hero. I was a just friend who helped her in a time of need.”

Prior to Stabo’s accident, Todd said there were reports of three to four burn injuries suffered by members of the public.

“We were aware there were issues but people didn’t quite know the extent of it,” the chief said. “The injuries were minor. The feet got burned or dropped into pockets (in the ground).”

Todd said addressing the blaze has been difficult, as there are a lot of cultural sites in the area and he didn’t know who had management over the land.

“Bulldozing the area, it’s not something simple to do. Until we had thermal imaging, we had no idea what the extent of (the fire) was,” Todd said.

Access to the area is shut down. The public is advised to stay out entirely.

A Go Fund Me account has been set up to help Stabo with medical expenses. Click here for more information.

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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