What’s that smoke at Kona airport?

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Bobby Guarino captured a photo of black smoke billowing toward the sky while on his sailboat at Makalawena Beach Park on Feb. 6, 2023. Photo credit: Bobby Guarino

Bobby Guarino was on his sailboat at Makalawena Beach Park when he saw black smoke billowing toward the sky. He thought it might be a car fire.

But that wasnʻt the case.

The origin of the smoke was four miles south of Guarino at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. The airport’s Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting unit has been conducting live-fire training all week as part of its regulatory Federal Aviation Administration’s annual live fire exercises, said a spokesperson for the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation, which owns and operates the airport.

The training will continue Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to about 12:30 p.m.


“The crews need to be prepared for any type of emergency they may need to respond to on the airfield, at a gate, or in the terminal,” the Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation said in an email.

The last time the airport held this live fire training was a year ago for Kona airport’s FAA Triennial Exercise. The training was conducted at night to create low-visibility conditions. Several mutual aid partners, including Hawai‘i Fire and Hawai‘i Police Departments, participated in the training.

In the past, Kona also has hosted Līhu‘e Airport’s Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting’s annual live fire requirement.

According to the Department of Transportation, the statewide Airport’s Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting program holds various training performance exercises throughout the year. Some may include live fire training.


The FAA requires all rescue and firefighting personnel to participate annually in at least one live-fire drill.

“These trainings try to replicate real-world fires involving aviation fuels, combustible products contained in the materials found on aircraft, and unseen HAZMAT (Hazardous Materials) transported as cargo on aircraft,” state officials said. “Replicating real-world fires allow for the application of firefighting methodology but also is critical in the development of the firefighter through stress indoctrination.”

Kona Airport has 24 firefighting personnel assigned to the station and one dedicated Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting mechanic to maintain its fleet. The unit provides firefighting, medical, prevention and inspection services to the airport; and it provides prevention and inspection services at Waimea-Kohala Airport and Upolu Airport, located in North Kohala.

The airport’s Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting unit also provides inspection services to off-airport fuel vendors who access the airport to obtain fuel at Kona Airport, and transport fuel to private airports in West Hawai‘i.


Other training that may be visible to the public from the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway are periodic live class A fires or ordinary combustibles found in structures, the rescue intervention team training, rescue of a downed firefighter, vehicle/aircraft extrication training and initial Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting training.

An engine has been added to the Kona Airport arsenal to complement the response of three Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting vehicles for the purpose of interior aircraft firefighting capabilities and the provision of structural firefighting.

With expansion at Kona Airport, there also is a need to protect the structures that make up the ticket lobby, gates and baggage claim.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a full-time reporter for Pacific Media Group. 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.

Tiffany can be reached at [email protected].
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