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Neighbors of Kona Brush Fire Say Homeless Camps Reason for Recent String of Blazes

By Tom Hasslinger
February 16, 2022, 5:30 PM HST
* Updated February 16, 5:19 PM
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Firefighters cleanup after putting out a brush fire off Kuakini Highway. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

Neighbors of the brush fire Wednesday in Kailua-Kona that closed two highways and evacuated multiple subdivisions said there have been several brush fires in the area recently that they believe are started in the nearby homeless camps that go unchecked.

“I smelled fire and I was like, ‘Don’t tell me it went start up again,’ because this is what, the third or fourth time,” said Denise Fadem, who lives off Kuakini Highway next to Oni Oni Street, one of the streets that was evacuated when a brush fire ignited mauka of the highway.

Fadem, whose small neighborhood did not need to evacuate, said she first noticed the smell of smoke around 9:30 a.m. She assumed it was another brush fire, which the neighborhood has experienced recently. At least three fires have broke out in the last week, neighbors and one police officer said.

But unlike the previous fires, this one grew bigger, Fadem said, and it was later she noticed fire engines responding, helicopters in the air, and her neighbors being evacuated from their homes.

“I was here and I heard people yelling,” she said of the confusion as traffic backed up as people tried to leave.

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The Hawaiʻi Fire Department began battling the brush fire Wednesday morning between Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway and Kuakini Highway, near the University of Nations. The blaze prompted evacuations of the Kona Hillcrest subdivision and the Pottery Terrace Industrial Area.

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No structures or injuries were reported but some residents were using hoses to spray back approaching flames along their property lines, a police officer, who helped the neighbors, told Big Island Now.

 A vacant homeless camp sits across Kuakini Highway from the spot where firefighters doused a brush fire Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

“Literally, it came up to their back fence,” the officer said.

The highways were closed for around three hours before reopening by 4:30 p.m. Fire department helicopters dumped buckets of water on the area most the afternoon, circling back to the ocean to refill them and flying the short distance inland to unload them. At its height, the fire sent a large, dark black stream of smoke in the sky that was visible from all directions.

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An evacuation shelter was set up at the Kailua Park Gymnasium at the Old Kona Airport, but it closed by 4 p.m. when the fire was deemed contained and residents were allowed to return to their homes.

But neighbors said brush fires in the area have become too commonplace for their liking.

Besides the three or four recent ones, there was a larger fire that required emergency response in the middle of the night about two weeks ago, some neighbors said.

They said the homeless who encamp in the area are likely responsible. Makeshift camps and tents could be spotted in the grassy areas just off of Kuakini Highway near where the fire engines were parked as they fought the fire.

“These people, they have to do something. They’re not solving the homeless situation,” said Peter Masi, who lives across the street from Pottery Terrace. “Thanks goodness nobody lost their houses.”

He said the camps should be cleared, or it will be only a matter of time before another fire starts. Officials did not specify the official cause of the fire by Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s just sad that they’re not doing their job because one fire demonstrates people (are) living there and it could do what it just did, another fire,” he said. “Next time it could be worse. Next time, someone could get killed.”

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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