VOLCANO VILLAGE, Hawaii Island — A packed hall of Volcano villagers has been a frequent sight at Cooper Center, the village’s community center, in recent months. Usually the meetings have been for briefings on the latest volcanic activity.
Wednesday night was different.
Scores of villagers convened with hot dishes, salads and desserts to thank and feed dozens of hungry firefighters for their efforts in fighting a wildfire on the slopes of Mauna Loa above the village.
Firefighters from across the state and as far away as California have battled the blaze, which has scorched more than 3,670 acres, mostly in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The fire has been declared 90 percent contained, and firefighters managed to stop it just short of the Kipuka Ki, a special wildlife management area for endangered birds and plants.
The potluck also turned into a homecoming celebration. For the first time since Aug. 2, the Volcano area’s own Hawaii County Engine Company 19 and Ambulance Company 19 would be spending the night in Volcano.
Company 19’s fire station is located in Kilauea Military Camp in the national park. But only three days before the fire began, the county announced that it was evacuating the station due to the perilous condition of a 4 mile stretch of Highway 11, the Hawaii Belt Road, which has been damaged by volcanic subsidence in the summit caldera area of Kilauea.
A number of times in recent months, sinkholes and cracks have forced the closure of one or both lanes; on Aug. 2, as road crews repaired yet another sinkhole, the county decided to pull the firemen out. If the road was closed, the fire company would be trapped in its station.
The engine company was temporarily assigned to Pahoa in Lower Puna; Medic Company 19 would operate from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Cooper Center and spend nights in Keaau, adding about 20 minutes to emergency medical runs during those hours.
At an Aug. 2 community meeting in Volcano, Mayor Harry Kim announced a plan for an emergency alternate route to connect the Golf Course subdivision with a road in the rest of Volcano Village. He said he’d asked county officials how fast they could get the route open, and they’d told him, “two weeks.”
“I said, ‘I’ll settle for one,’” he recounted.
But eight days later, after a lull in volcanic activity, the county announced that the alternate route had been temporarily shelved, though planning would continue, said Barrett Otani of Hawaii County Public Works.
On Wednesday, even though Company 19 had temporary quarters in Volcano again, there was no indication as to when or if it would be able to return to its firehouse.
Figuring Out The Path Forward
The problems with Highway 11 go beyond the firehouse. If that section of the highway has to close, it also cuts off the sprawling Volcano Golf Course subdivision — and the district of Kau. Currently, no alternate route exists from there to Hilo except around the island via Kona.
Kau does have a small rural hospital, but it often needs to transfer patients to Hilo Medical Center. And many of the hospital’s clinical staff commute from Hilo or Puna, on the other side of the damaged highway, according to hospital administrator Merylin Harris.
“Many of them work 12-hour shifts, so one solution might be for them to come here and stay down here — maybe with staff, or we may need to find housing for them,” she said.
In addition to Company 19, Volcano does have a volunteer fire company with a small firehouse at Cooper Center. But the volunteer firehouse doesn’t have bathrooms or showers, so the professionals can’t take up residence there. Volcano has no ambulance aside from Medic Company 19.
When the wildfire broke out, said volunteer firefighter Terry Murray, “I called it in … I knew we were the first responders here.”
He and the volunteer company’s brush truck ended up separated from its pumper, which isn’t designed for off-road travel. The brush truck crew fought the fire from its makai side while the pumper worked from above.
The fire proved too large for them to handle. Eventually, it would require 142 firefighters from the county fire companies, the national park and various state agencies, with the Volcano volunteers fighting alongside them, all coordinated by a fire management team from California. Volcano lodges and B&Bs opened their doors to the visiting firefighters.
Life On Hold
As of Thursday, the lull in the eruption was holding. Earthquakes at the summit had lessened. County and national park officials weren’t predicting what would happen next, though national park Superintendent Cindy Orlando seemed optimistic.
“Let’s hope we’re on the tail end of the event. We can’t wait to get our park open again,” she said.
Meanwhile, Highway 11 is still crisscrossed with scores of white and orange spray-painted lines marking cracks in the pavement.
One problem the county faces in creating a short-term alternate route around the bad stretch of road is that there really may not be a good alternative. Piimauna Road and Golf Links Road, the first two legs of the county’s proposed route, have also taken a beating from the volcano. Two large steel plates bridge a huge crack near the entrance of Piimauna, the only road in and out of the Golf Course subdivision. Cracks etch Golf Links Road.
Some residents at the Aug. 2 meeting suggested Crater Rim Drive in the national park as an alternate route. But according to Orlando, the drive is “failing and expected to get worse,” badly cracked and undermined, and even closer than Highway 11 to the “extreme safety hazard” that had forced the summit area’s closure.
The county is also working on plans for a more permanent emergency route from the mauka end of Piimauna to Wright Road in Volcano Village, but that route will take months to complete.
Anxiously awaiting the outcome of the county’s deliberations are residents like Billie Martines.
Martines and her husband, a disabled veteran, bought their home on Golf Links Road only last October. They hadn’t planned on hundreds of earth tremors a day cracking their ceilings and water tank, or on Billie losing her job at Volcano House, the national park’s fabled lodge, when the park closed.
And she hadn’t counted on a county official stopping at her house on Golf Links Road to say it was going to become an emergency substitute for Highway 11, which carries about 3,000-5,000 cars a day.
“My children play on their bikes on that road,” she said.
The county still has no start date for the emergency route construction. Company 19 doesn’t know if or when it can return to its firehouse. And Martines is still awaiting word on will happen in front of her residence.
Otani said residents can send comments about the bypass plans to the Hawaii County Department of Public Works or to Civil Defense.
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Alan D. McNarie has been covering the Big Island's people and issues for various publications for over a quarter century. He's published two novels: "Yeshua" and "The Soul Keys." He lives in Volcano. Email Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org