James Boone with the Hawaii County Fire Department, demonstrates the operation of the ladder truck, which allows firemen access to otherwise inaccessible areas. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
Hawaii County firemen enjoy a break as they play volleyball at Station 14 South Kohala. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
From left, firefighters DJ Wengler-Ioane, Andrew Miller, and fire medical specialist Elijah McDaniel hold a variety of extrication tools at the Kohala Fire Department in Kapaau. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
Fire Captain Sundie Aribal stands at the pump control on a firetruck at the Kohala Fire Department in Kapaau. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
A ladder truck allows firemen access to rooftops, pipes allow water to be pumped up through the ladder. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
The rescue helicopter at Hawaii County Fire Department Station 14 South Kohala is equipped to transport those with medical emergencies. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO|SPECIAL TO NHN)
Telling a lie won’t set your pants on fire but an unattended pan on the stove might start a blaze that scares your pants off. Nationwide, cooking causes about 150,000 home fires each year, contributing to thousands of injuries and millions of dollars in property damage.
“Prevent Kitchen Fires” is the theme for this year’s Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 6-12, a 93-year-old tradition first proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1920. Fire Prevention Week was inspired by the Fire Marshals Association of North America, who wanted to commemorate the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 8, 1871, in a way that would help educate the public about fire safety.
The Great Chicago Fire, for which Mrs. O’Leary’s famous cow has been blamed but never proved to be the cause, burned for two days, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and 2,000 acres, killed 250 people and left 100,000 homeless. On the exact same day, the Peshtigo Fire ignited in northeast Wisconsin and grew into the biggest forest fire in America’s history, as it burned across 1.2 million acres (roughly half the size of the Big Island) leveled 16 towns, and killed more than 1,100 people.
“More of a problem here is brush fires, especially in places with wild land-urban interface,” said Waimea Fire Captain Bill Bergin.
Bergin said that an example of wild land-urban interface would be a subdivision built in an outlying area with dry grass and brush close to homes. This scenario can create fire risk, especially if there are no “defensible spaces” such as green lawn around the house.
According to Bergin, brush fires are most often started accidentally by a wayward cigarette, a car parked in tall grass, or sometimes hot metal falling from overhead power lines which have started to arc. Lightning strike fires, often in remote areas, also cause brush fires, particularly in dry areas.
“The past few years, the rainy season has been delayed,” said Bergin. “Right now, we are normally going into the wet season, but in the last few years, it’s been January to March.”
Bergin said that occasional pockets of good rainfall tend to grow grass quickly and increase the fuel supply.
“We are starting to get brush fires in normally wetter regions,” said Bergin. “Even in the Waipio to Waimanu trail areas, from campfires.”
“When the fire is 10 miles away from the station, it can get going pretty good by the time we get there,” he added.
In the case of very large fires, firefighters from Pohakuloa Training Area or the Department of Land and Natural Resources co-respond. And, they are often supported by Volunteer Fire Departments.
“We dispatch them to come and help primarily with brush fires,” said Bergin. “They are a great help to us, a great asset.”
“It’s a joint effort. We have fairly good resources here when it comes to wild land fires,” said Ipo Thompson of the Waikoloa Fire Station, who agreed that kitchen and cooking fires are fairly common sources of house fires (along with unattended candles).
“It’s good to raise awareness levels of homeowners,” he said.
“Around here, fortunately, we have a fairly good community, with not too many careless home owners in the area,” said Thompson. He said the last fire call they had was related to cooking, and that a fire in Banjy’s restaurant earlier in the year was apparently caused by spontaneous combustion of cleaning rags in the kitchen area.
Open land, dry conditions, windy conditions all contribute to fires in the Waikoloa area, according to Thompson, but for the most part homeowners are careful.
“One big thing is maintaining a 30-foot defensible area around the home,” he said. “It’s good to work with a community that is pro-active.”
“The public needs to understand and have that awareness level,” said Thompson. “People need to understand the significant economic impact … A structure fire will impact one family, but a brush fire can impact a whole town, put rescue people at risk and dramatically increase the cost.”
“For the past couple of seasons, we haven’t had much in the way of residential fires,” said Captain Sundie Aribal of North Kohala Fire Station. “We had some close calls and were able to extinguish those, but we have had major brush fires.”
Aribal said that one thing property owners can do to help with fire safety is to think about access.
“Come see us and see what we can do for them as far as getting access,” said Aribal. “Accessibility is a problem—gates, off-road, getting large vehicles into a remote area.”
Aribal said that in many cases they need to bring in helicopters to fight a fire, but that is subject to availability, as the choppers share responsibility with medevac and rescue missions.
A demanding and sometimes dangerous profession, Aribal said that firefighters’ training and teamwork were the keys to success.
“You slowly learn what you can and cannot do, and should and shouldn’t do,” he said. “We have a good team over here. Everybody has their specific jobs, their training, and as a team we work together.”
And, after 23 years of service, Aribal said, “It’s been excellent for me.”
“Whenever I talk to people, I highly recommend it as a very satisfying, very rewarding career,” he said.
During Fire Prevention Week, and the other 51 weeks of the year, let’s take a moment to say thanks to all the firefighters in our communities, professionals and volunteers as well, for the outstanding work they do. Mahalo!