Residents say Waikōloa Village emergency access is limited, high hopes for another road
September 24, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated September 24, 7:36 AM
The blistering hot sun beamed down on Waikōloa Village resident Cindy Kester on Monday afternoon while she hiked a small, one-lane back road that twists and turns down the dry mountainside of West Hawai’i.
Kester said residents sometimes use the 2-mile road to run, walk their dogs or sit on a nearby bench to take in the breathtaking view of the Kona coast.
But ever since Aug. 8 — when gridlocked traffic hindered thousands of people trying to escape the fast-moving Lāhainā fire that has killed at least 97 people — Waikōloa residents have thought more about the importance of the rarely used road.
If there was a fire, and Waikōloa Road was closed or gridlocked with traffic, Kester said the road would be the only way out of a village some people call the “worldʻs largest cul-de-sac.”
The one-lane emergency route, a mix of gravel and pavement surround by grass and shrubs, was built after the 2005 fire when Waikōloa Village was evacuated. For years the road wasn’t used for vehicles and remained gated, she said.
But in 2021, when the large Mana Fire scorched 40,000 acres in the South Kohala District and jumped Highway 190 in the direction of the village, the one-lane route became a lifeline to safety for some of the 6,500 residents. People started calling it the Waikōloa Village Hulu Evacuation Road.
But many residents did not know the road exists.
It connects with Paniolo Ave, the area’s main street, which also connects with Waikōloa Road in an area that is a mix of residential homes and condos, schools and county parks. It also is gated and locked mauka and makai. During an emergency, Hawai’i Fire Department personnel have keys to unlock them.
Deputy Fire Chief Eric Moller said the Hulu Evacuation Road is on land owned by the Bridge Aina Le’a and the Waikōloa Village Association.
In the 2021 Mana Fire, a mandatory evacuation was ordered and many people were stuck in traffic for several hours while trying to exit the village via Paniolo Avenue toward Waikōloa Road and down to Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway.
News accounts described the moment as a “mass exodus,” with bumper-to-bumper traffic and an average travel time of about 45 minutes to Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway.
A year after the traumatic event and again this year, the county and community held Hulu Holoholo events, in which the gates were opened to encourage residents to drive the emergency road and get comfortable with it in case an evacuation is ordered again in the future. The county has installed evacuation road signs on Paniolo Avenue and Hulu Street to guide drivers.
The gates are unlocked during these events and in case of an emergency.
Kester said participants were surprised, but also nervous.
“They were also taken aback by the things that weren’t so good because you can only drive very slowly there,” she said.
The Hulu Evacuation Road appears to be less of a road and more of a Plan B, a temporary solution to a community’s worst nightmare of being trapped during a life-threatening emergency.
There now is a $26 million road project to improve Waikōloa Road, but it does not address the safety issue of leaving the village during an emergency.
She raises the question of how school buses would be able to travel the one-lane road, or what would happen during an evacuation if a car broke down or got a flat tire along the way.
“There are some spots on the road that there’s really no place to get around,” she said.
She said the solution is clear: “Build another road.”
And she’s not alone.
Shelly Aina, Chair of the Waikōloa Village Association’s Firewise Committee, said having at least one more road and “preferably more” in and out of Waikōloa Village is needed.
Moller also agreed, saying: “Trying to force up to 10,000 cars at a time down one artery is very difficult.”
Moller said the problem is only becoming bigger as the population increases in the village that sits on the north side of Waikōloa Access Road. He said he doesnʻt know if the existing roads are “100% adequate” to handle the traffic in an emergency.
Currently, the Hawai’i Fire Department works with the community on their recommendations and concerns about emergency situations, whether online, in-person or calls to the department, Moller said.
Public engagement also is done through community organizations and non-profits such as the Hawai’i Wildfire Management Organization and the Pacific Fire Exchange. They partner with response agencies such as the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Army and the National Park Service.
Waikōloa isn’t the only area on the island that deals with this problem.
“Three communities that come to mind that are in similar situations are Puako, Kona Paradise, and Miloli’i,” Moller said. “This is where we have a lot of homes with one way in and one way out.”
Kester says the Kailapa Hawaiian Homesteads community in Kawaihae is another area that faces a similar threat.
Since the August fires on Lahaina and the Big Island, Kester said she believes people have gotten “more serious that there’s a threat here. … It could really come here and it could really happen to us.”
According to the September issue of the Waikōloa Village Association Monthly Newsletter, “efforts are also being made by various entities in the community to also prioritize the expansion of the Hulu Road to a two-lane highway, to allow access to Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway approximately 6-tenths of a mile north of the South Kohala Fire Station, it’s current connection point.”
The newsletter said there is a possibility of extending Paniolo Avenue to Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway: “A feasibility study has been completed involving the three landowners: [Waikōloa Village Association], Waikoloa Heights and Lālāmilo LLC. All three entities have agreed to provide necessary easement for construction of the roadway. Funding of the roadway currently is the biggest obstacle on the construction of the highway. Efforts are being made by various entities in the community along with the WVA to have the roadway prioritized for construction before any additional subdivision approval is agreed to.”
Aina said construction in the area is happening faster than county infrastructure can be built to support it. Right now, Nani Kai, a luxury estate development by Waikōloa Heights, is being built along with a half-finished road to the highway.
“As the developers continue to build in the north side of the village, they have promised they’ll add a new road, but most everyone here is skeptical,” she said. “Weʻve had promises in the past by developers who, once theyʻve made their money, abandon any community service expenditures.”
She said the best thing residents can do while they wait for the building of more roads is to stay prepared.
“Wildfire is a constant threat in the area we chose to live,” she said. “We do our best to keep our home and property firewise. That’s all we can do.”
For more information about firewise visit this website.