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Kaho?olawe Fire Could Be 'A Blessing In Disguise'

Maui Fire Department
Yellow areas show the extent of the Kahoolawe brush fire, as of Tuesday, February 25, 2020.

A brush fire continues to burn on Kaho?olawe, but it could be a blessing in disguise for those restoring native plants on the island.

The brush fire on Kaho?olawe likely started on Saturday morning. As of Tuesday, it  has burned more than 6,400 acres.

Maui Fire personnel are monitoring the situation, but are not fighting it because of unexploded ordnances on the island. They were left behind after the military stopped using the island for target practice in 1993.

It's not known yet what caused the fire, but it could have been sparked by dry invasive weeds or one of the explosives detonating.

According to Michael Naho?opi?i, executive director of the Kaho?olawe Island Reserve Commission, the island has seen fires in the past, but "it's been a while" since the last one. Kaho?olawe, which is off the coast of Maui, sits in its rain shadow and gets roughly 18 inches of rain a year.

"If we look at the conditions that are out there, it is dry," he said. "But it's only about 60% humidity, and most of the native vegetation will not burn until about 40% humidity."

Naho?opi?i says he sees the fire as a mixed blessing.

"It's really burning the invasive grass," he said. "One of the things that's an advantage for us, now we have a lot of open sight lines. We can find a lot of the old roads that have been overgrown by the grass. We could utilitize this fire to replant native seeds, and the invasive grass wouldn't be competing against the native plants."

While Maui Fire officials says trade winds seem to have slowed the progress of the fire, Naho?opi?i says they may have caused the fire to jump a road that protected the south side of the island. Close to the road is a KIRC storage facility that houses the commission's field equipment.

"We won't know the full extent, but we do see part of the storage building collapsed," he said. "We're just trying to see if any of our equipment survived."

Naho?opi?i says the facility housed a large chipper, used to clear brush, three Polaris All Terrain Vehicles, and possibly jet skis. He says a majority of the organization's big equipment seem to have been spared from the fire.

While some equipment may have been lost, Naho?opi?i says the KIRC can still use the fire to the organization's advantage.

"We have offers from the Big Island for native seeds that we can bring over and maybe do some aerial drops, and re-seed these areas with native plants. The advantage of re-seeding with native plants is that now it would be harder to burn in the future."

Naho?opi?i says the commission's managers will fly to the island later this week to assess the damage caused by the fire. But they won't know the full impact until the blaze is completely extinguished.

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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