Fences, forests and gullies have made total fire containment in the area a slog.

Residents have been playing whack-a-mole with lingering small fires in the Kula area as the Maui Fire Department remains in high demand.

On Thursday some 70 people got together to tamp down smoking hotspots, cut firebreaks and dispose of combustible green waste in the area. From time to time, those hotspots have flared up into flames that required assistance from MFD.

“The roots are burning underground,” said Tim Lara, a Kula resident involved in the effort. “That’s going to be the reality for the next two weeks.”

Lauren Haley of Kula discharges her two-inch line firehose Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023, in Kula. Haley has been using the firefighting hose to put out hot spots from underground tree roots. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lauren Haley of Kula has been using a firefighting hose to put out hot spots from underground tree roots. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The Kula fire initially reported Aug. 8 destroyed 20 buildings and burned 202 acres, according to an assessment by Maui County. The fire was 85% contained Friday. “Fire activity has been limited to isolated hot spots within the existing footprint,” and there are no imminent threats.

The challenge of totally extinguishing the Upcountry fires comes with the terrain, where “hot spots in gulches, forests and other hard to reach places, along with land divisions and fences, make establishment of complete control lines difficult,” the county said.

Reached by phone in Kula Thursday afternoon, Kyle Ellison quickly had to hang up.

“We just got an active flareup,” he said.

Later that night, a drone with infrared sensors flew over to detect other glowing areas.

On Friday, Ellison said “we’re trying to move on with our life, but we can’t move on with the fire actively burning. It’s kind of exhausting. Right now I’m getting calls about a flareup that’s going on. I had a fire pop up in my driveway.”

Citizens helped stamp out hotspots in Kula this week after most of the larger fire had died down. (Provided: Brennen Cunningham)

The Kula fire started behind Ellison’s house, and his family was the first to evacuate, he said. The house still stands, but most of its contents were damaged.

“It looks like a volcano went off inside the house. There’s just ash everywhere,” Ellison said.

Many of his neighbors’ houses were burned to the ground. The strong winds had also brought down hundreds, perhaps thousands of trees and more branches, he said. “It’s all a flame risk.”

At first Ellison turned away people asking how they could help with the Kula fires. “If you want to help me, go help them,” he would say, referring to West Maui. “The stuff coming out of there, just the stuff of nightmares.”

But several days after the fires peaked, his wife posted on Instagram a shot of a gulch burning in Kula.

“People didn’t realize that gulches were still burning in Kula,” Ellison said.

At first, just a few people started turning up, dropping off water, pouring five-gallon buckets over smoking earth. Then they came in the hundreds, with trucks and tools and 250-gallon tanks of water.

Lauren Haley’s neighbor’s house, cars and Harley Davidson motorcycle were destroyed in a wildfire, photographed Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023, in Kula. Haley has been using the firefighting hose to put out hot spots from underground tree roots. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lauren Haley’s neighbor’s house, cars and a Harley Davidson motorcycle were destroyed in the fire in Kula. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

They worked with buckets and hoses and pumps, and used shovels to unearth burning roots.

Restaurants donated food. Chainsaw teams cleared layers of brush. They carted off hundreds of tons of trees and branches to a wood chipper, returning with piles of mulch to spread in a bid to control erosion from coming storms.

“You go from a tree in someone’s driveway, taken in someone’s truck to a chipper, mulched, all in the same day, for free,” he said.

Ellison’s team maintains a database of addresses with downed trees and green waste.

“The volume of support from the community is overwhelming. And no one’s flinching,” he said.

A fire truck with a crew of five comes whenever the flames flare up.

“They’re stretched thin. Their plates are full,” Ellison said. “We’re here just trying to aid and be helping hands because they can’t be everywhere.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author