That same fateful day, a couple of farmers, a troop of cowboys and fire crews were all that stood between a Waimea wildfire and potential catastrophe.

John Hall caught a faint whiff of smoke at his family’s off-the-grid farmhouse before the sun rose over the Big Island, as he was logging into work remotely with his Colorado colleagues.

The windows were closed to keep out the hurricane-force winds rushing across the island. It was just after 4 a.m. on Aug. 8, two hours before sun would shine over Lalamilo Farm Lots.

“Where the sunrise would have been, I saw these huge flames coming up over the driveway,” Hall said.

Hall and his wife promptly headed out, calling his father in the process. Howard Hall runs the family farm but lives offsite.

The farm was on fire, Hall told his father. The house might soon be too.

A gate at the Halls’ farm, near Waimea, was one of the few casualties of the fire. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

Howard Hall met them at the farm gate. The 84-year-old former volunteer firefighter announced he would try to save the house. John Hall said goodbye to his wife and joined his father.

Howard and John Hall would spend 14 hours fighting one of four wildfires ignited and fanned by high winds on the Big Island on Aug. 8. The blaze is emblematic of the wildfire problem that now besets Hawaii. Their fire took hold soon after Maui’s first fire was reported, one of four that overtook that island, including the one that razed Lahaina and killed at least 115 people.

Howard Hall, at right, was prepared for fire, in part because he has a network of hoses that make water available to much of his 14-acre property. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

The Halls and others who fought the fire on their farm suspect that it, too, could have had horrific consequences.

Waikoloa, Puako and Kawaihae are within 10 miles of their Lalamilo Farm Lots parcel. What lies between is mostly desiccated grassland.

Those settlements could well have been in range of a wildfire driven by winds amplified by Hurricane Dora as it churned south of Hawaii.

The winds grounded helicopters that could have helped. The fire would have moved too fast for bulldozers to keep up. The terrain to the south was too rough for firetrucks and tankers, and the firefighters were dealing with two other fires that day.

Map showing the approximate distance of 6 miles from Pu‘u Huluhulu Rd to Waikoloa Village on the Big Island
Some of the land between Waikoloa Village and the Lalamilo Farm Lots is grazed by cattle, but a lot of fuel remains in the area. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

So the father and son did what they could until support arrived.

“We did not know how it could play out,” Howard Hall said. “Now, in light of Lahaina, we sit back and say ‘Holy shit. It could have been another Lahaina’.”

It’s not a statement the former dean at Hawaii Preparatory Academy makes lightly, given his 60 years of experience with the increasingly perilous wildfire situation on the Big Island.

Hawaii Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd says the winds that day might have pushed the fire toward Kawaihae, further north, though the behavior of the island’s fires were were so erratic that it could have gone elsewhere.

Wise To Fire Risk

The lion’s share of Kohala’s fire companies were dispatched to the district’s northern reaches at 2:49 a.m. on Aug. 8 for the Big Island’s first and largest fire of the day.

Firefighters would fight for hours to keep the flames from reaching the Kohala Ranch subdivision. By the time it was under control its footprint expanded to about 1,000 acres. It only damaged a few homes.

The Kohala Ranch subdivision suffered minimal damage from the wildfires that burned on Aug. 8. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

The Emergency Operations Center sent equipment and firefighters to North Kohala first.

At 5:06 a.m., employees from the county’s Department of Public Works reported the Hall’s fire after seeing it from almost a mile away.

The island has an uncomfortable but increasingly intimate relationship with fire, with each year seeming to bring a new landmark.

The fires are fueled by climate change, persistent drought, invasive species and declining agricultural use, among other factors.

As a result, Hawaii county’s firefighters have been gaining a greater understanding of wildfire, which they often fight alongside the military and foresters from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

They depend on roads and highways as firebreaks, and use bulldozers to create new ones. In many cases, farmers get involved too.

The North Kohala fire made its way into Kohala Ranch, burning some houses, but the community was evacuated. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

Still, on Aug. 8, the fires across the island’s western coast behaved in ways many firefighters had not encountered, according to fire chief Todd.

In the Halls’ case, given Kohala’s crews were already fighting a wildfire, units from Honokaa to Hilo were called in to help.

So were cowboys from Parker Ranch, which has its own firefighting equipment and fire-trained employees.

Two large dozers, provided by a county contractor, upturned the earth along the fence line to make a firebreak, a common practice on the Big Island.

“For any fire of appreciable size and speed, you need everything you can get your hands on,” Todd said. “We’re kind of land-locked and don’t have the ability to bring on additional resources. So it’s very difficult, here in Hawaii.”


By the time help arrived around 8 a.m., Howard and John Hall were virtually surrounded by fire.

It had consumed a line of trees planted as a windbreak along the property’s northern edge, threatening the last line of trees before it headed for the Halls’ house.

John Hall jumped the fence with a heavy, firefighting grade hose in hand, one of several his father installed around the farm and tried to fight it back. He continually looked over his shoulder, preparing for an escape.

If embers reached and ignited the second line of trees, the house would be next. Then it could have moved even further south.

Eventually, the father and son saw lights through the smoke, buoying their hope.

Then they were hit by water.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

John Hall saw Parker Ranch’s truck, which extinguished the fire in the line of trees.

The driver saw Hall “and throws me a shaka,” he said. “We both laugh as we were standing amongst smoldering, no-longer-flaming debris. And it was right at that moment, I just broke down.”

By midday there would be another flareup and the Halls, firefighters and cowboys would continue to tamp it down.

Howard Hall says the farm was saved — not to mention the towns that might have been in the fire’s path — thanks to the firefighters and Parker Ranch crew.

Over the course of the next evening, firefighters remained on the scene. Over the course of the following two weeks, Howard Hall remained on the property to stop any flareups and douse hot spots.

Almost two weeks after the fire, a crew responded to a flareup where the Halls believe the fire started — a power pole less than a mile north, where lines might have slapped together in the wind or been ripped from their moorings.

Stewarding The Land

Sen. Tim Richards, who lives near the Kohala Ranch subdivision, says the fires in Lahaina and across the state have underscored what many of his constituents already knew: Wildfire is a profound risk to the community.

Waikoloa Village has been threatened by wildfires several times in recent years. It has long been recognized as one of the state’s most at-risk communities, given its surrounding dry landscape, windswept and laden with fire-prone vegetation.

A Waikoloa Village committee has been dedicated to reducing the risk of wildfire since 2003. In 2005 the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization built a 30-foot-wide firebreak along the village’s northern edge — it saved the community a month after it was built.

It joined the national Firewise network in 2016, a national program that helps educate communities and teach them how to adapt to fire risk.

But the winds on Aug. 8 might have been strong and unpredictable enough to overcome those precautions.

Hall’s farm is fed by a consistent source of water and rigged with taps that fit standard 1.5 inch-diameter firehose fittings that the firefighters tapped into. In more remote spots, water must be carted in with tankers or helicopters and buckets — not an option that day because of the high winds.

Much of fire preparedness comes down to active land management and vigilance, so that fire agencies can respond as quickly as possible, according to Richards.

Likewise, maintaining the land means keeping fuel loads — such as the grasses between Hall’s farm and the coast — as low as possible.

“It’s not if they’re going to burn, it’s when they’re going to burn,” Richards said. “We have to be mindful of that so we can jump on them as quickly as we can.”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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