Army helps fight wildfire, protect endangered species

| June 15, 2017 | 0 Comments
The 25th CAB, 25th ID, along with the Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources and other local agencies, fight a wildfire near Mokuleia Forest Reserve. The fire was extinguished on June 10. (Photo by Capt. Steven J. Guevara, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade)

A 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, helicopter drops water on a wildfire that threatened endangered species in the Waianae Mountains. The Army, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and other local agencies, worked together to fight the fire, which was contained on June 10. (Photo by Capt. Steven J. Guevara, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs)

Karen A. Iwamoto
Staff Writer

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — A wildfire that reached the Mokuleia Forest Reserve scorched about 450 acres of land and came within less than a mile of some of the world’s most endangered trees before it was contained on June 10.

The mehamehame trees, also known as the “redwoods of the Hawaiian forest,” are endemic to Hawaii and considered critically endangered. The Waianae Mountain Range is the only place where they are found on Oahu.

Sgt. James Perkins of 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, a crew member instructor, returns from making a water drop on June 8.

Sgt. James Perkins of 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, a crew member instructor, returns from making a water drop on June 8. (Photo by Capt. Steven J. Guevara, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs)

“There are less than 30 mehamehame trees remaining in the world,” said Kapua Kewalo, the natural resources manager for U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii. “And they are male and female trees, meaning that they need to get together to make keiki. With such a small gene pool as it is, every single one of those remaining trees is invaluable.”

Charles Gibbs, chief of the U.S. Army Hawaii’s Wildland Fire Division, said fire officials managed to put down the blaze before it reached any endangered native plants but it came within 600 meters of them.

Two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, each capable of dropping 660 gallons of water at a time, were called to the scene to help battle the blaze. The 25th CAB also deployed a Chinook helicopter capable of dropping 2,000 gallons of water at a time.

Firefighters from the Army’s Wildland Fire Division helped to secure the fire’s boundaries and to call in the water drops.

A Chinook from 25th CAB, 25th ID, drops water on a wildfire in the Waianae Mountains.

A Chinook from 25th CAB, 25th ID, drops water on a wildfire in the Waianae Mountains. (Photo by Capt. Steven J. Guevara, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs)

“As a member of the Oahu community, the 25th CAB takes great pride in being able to assist the surrounding area in times of crisis,” said Maj. Robert I. Sickler III, the 25th CAB executive officer. “We are happy that we could help during these wildfires.”

Firefighters from the Honolulu Fire Department were also fighting the fire. It and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources contributed smaller helicopters to drop buckets on the fire.

The quick pooling of state and federal resources was possible due to a mutual aid firefighting agreement between the Army and the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Although no endangered native plants were destroyed in the fire, Kewalo pointed out that some non-endangered native plants were destroyed. These included some wiliwili and lama trees, both culturally significant to Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners.

While there is enough remaining stock of those trees, she emphasized that the fire now widens the boundaries for hardier non-native plants that will likely re-populate the scorched area and create more fuel for future fires.

“This fire opens up the boundaries for more guinea grass to grow,” she said. “I think the public needs to be aware of how much the fuel sources (in the area) has changed over the years. There is a lot of guinea grass out there and that stuff is terrible. It grows anywhere there’s a little sunlight and it really carried this fire. It might have started on agricultural land, but the guinea grass carried it right up into the forest.”

Gibbs agreed, and said the safety lesson the community should take away from the fire is to be aware of their surroundings and take precautions to prevent starting a wildfire.

“If you’re out in areas that have guinea grass, be aware that it’s the most dangerous grass we have, and it’s not natural to this island so it’s taking over,” he said. “Guinea grass burns hot and fast, and it’s difficult to put out once it starts because the fire moves fast and because of the heat it generates. It’s more susceptible to catching on fire than regular grass.”

The fire was reportedly ignited by a truck that stopped in a grassy area on private farmland on June 7. The flames destroyed the truck but the driver was not injured.

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Category: News, Safety

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