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Editor’s Note: This is another in an occasional series of columns about the Hana Highway, one of the most traveled roads in Hawaii.
My lemon yellow 2002 Ford Ranger has been “rode hard and put away wet” after so many rough trips on the Hana Highway that most of its parts have been replaced at least twice, but because it has saved our lives in floods and landslides I can’t give it up.
The rusting-out truck identifies us as locals as we wedge ourselves between tourist cars and muscle into parking spaces at the beach. We can haul rubbish to the landfill, pick up a new refrigerator, ferry lumber and loan it to anybody who needs four-wheel drive.
But the last time a brake line failed a mechanic had to make a new one because no more are available. That’s a warning that the end is nigh for “Old Yeller.” Unlike many of its ilk, however, my vehicle won’t end up an abandoned, burned relic.
That illegal solution is increasing in Hawaii, particularly along vast stretches of easily accessible rainforest flanking the road to Hana. Owners who are too lazy to go through legal disposal or are choosing to duck tow and metal recycling charges erase all serial numbers, then dump their junk vehicles in less populated areas, especially east Maui.
Either owners trying to hide their identity or other vandals out for kicks set the abandoned cars and trucks on fire, leaving the charred hulks for the county to haul away. Because few are caught it’s hard to know if the pyromaniacs are locals or out-of-towners.
The culprits my husband and I saw torching a pile of metal and an abandoned car at an intersection near Keanae a few years ago were local.
Just before we drew even with the rubbish, which appeared to be gathered for pickup, we smelled gasoline. A second later flames shot up, engulfing some old appliances and licking at the smashed car. Then we saw five males running from the burning rubble and jumping into a lifted truck with big tires, and an old SUV. In their rush to get away they raced right in front of us before turning, at the last second, into the opposite lane.
We did not get license plate numbers but got a good look at the vehicles. We drove straight to the Hana police station and reported our eyewitness accounts. An officer took our statements and said the police would be on the lookout. We never heard from authorities again, but several weeks later I was sure the SUV was parked next to me at the general store. I went back inside but did not recognize any of the shoppers as a person at the crime scene. The torched car and rubbish eventually got hauled away.
The desecration of the landscape with abandoned vehicles is growing, but a Maui Police Department spokesman said a statistical breakdown of reported cases of burglarized, vandalized, burned, abandoned or stolen vehicles specifically along the Hana Highway in 2016 was not readily available.
“I recommend using the community crime map to search incidents by area,” he said.
It is not uncommon to see one or two burned-out metal eyesores with obliterated serial numbers abandoned in pullouts or shoved part way into the jungle along the road to Hana. Passing tourists may briefly wonder about the charred hulks; locals worry their frequency is a harbinger of future property damage, vehicle burglaries and road rage.
Most Hana residents keep East Maui Towing & Transport’s numbers on their cell phones to summon owner Tim Everett in case of trouble. Last year he and an employee responded to more than 350 calls from AAA’s emergency roadside service to help stranded motorists, most of them tourists.
“We’ve had five of them in the last day and a half,” Everett said earlier this week. He has a wrecker truck and a flatbed carrier that can haul one car and pull another at the same time.
Everett says at minimum “it’s a six-hour roundtrip between Hana and Kahului, and a lot worse if there’s more traffic and people are illegally pulling over and parking all along the road.”
Locals worry the frequency of abandoned, burned and vandalized vehicles is a harbinger of future property damage, vehicle burglaries and road rage.
Two decades of driving treacherous switchbacks and cliffs have given Everett a unique perspective of increasing human impact on the two narrow Hana roadways, one north toward Paia, the other south to Ulupalakua.
He said increasing difficulty getting his trucks through the constant stream of visitor traffic is shared by “the guys driving the propane truck, gas truck, highway crews, the stores bringing in supplies — anyone in a big rig trying to go down the highway.”
“We ought to have ‘meter maids’ out here writing citations every day for people parking illegally,” he said, adding “police presence on the road always helps.”
He’s also noticed “there seems to be more of the junked cars in the last few years.”
“I’ve been called by the police two or three times to go drag some that are still burning out of the road,” he said. “There are all kinds of young punks out there.”
Tamara Farnsworth, Maui County’s abandoned vehicles and metals administrator, confirmed his observation.
“The number (of abandoned vehicles) has tripled on the island in the last four years,” she said. “Last year there were more than 1,000 towed either to the impound yard or directly to the metals recycling facility.
“There has been an overall increase of (vehicle) fires on Maui. People have always been burning them on the Hana Highway, but now the fires are coming closer to urban areas with the increase of vandalism overall on the island.”
For administrative and police jurisdiction purposes, Maui is split into districts. The Hana Highway is divided at Kaumahina State Park, mile marker 12.2, near Keanae, with the roadway northwest toward Huelo in the upcountry district and the road running southeast toward Keanae and Hana in the east Maui district.
Last year, Farnsworth said, the county authorized its contractor, Maui Tow and Transport, to haul 27 abandoned vehicles from the east Maui district at a cost to taxpayers of about $350 each.
“At least half were vandalized, burnt, or stripped down and went straight to the only permitted metals recycling facility on Maui,” she said.
In response, the county has initiated a junk vehicle disposal assistance program to try and decrease the numbers. It also launched a public awareness campaign encouraging people who see an abandoned vehicle to report it to the Maui Police Department.
Under a contract due to expire this summer, Hammerhead Metals Recycling currently accepts the county’s certified junked vehicles without charge. It has a sliding fee scale for owners who want to take their their own vehicles to its Mokulele Highway facility.
Because the upcountry district includes other highways and more populated areas, Farnsworth was unable to provide a breakdown of abandoned and vandalized vehicles on that portion of the Hana Highway, but said a favorite spot to leave vehicles is at Twin Falls just northwest of where the districts divide.
East Maui issues are Maui Councilman Robert Carroll’s full-time job. At a March 16 community meeting in Hana, a constituent asked him: “Is there anything the council can do to take care of our junk cars if it’s too expensive to have them towed away?”
She was worried that disabled vehicles currently parked in residents’ yards could clandestinely wind up beside the highway or in the rainforest.
“We are working on it,” Carroll said.