Multiple elements from across U.S. Army-Hawaii (including Hawaii Army National Guard), in support of a combined effort led by Hawaii County Fire Department, pulled together to battle the 40,000 acre Waimea wildfire, considered the largest in Hawaii Island history from July 30 to Aug. 4.
Fifteen Pōhakuloa Training Area firefighters worked in 12 hour shifts; 25 active-duty soldiers comprised of pilots, crew chiefs and flight engineers logged over 70 flight hours; 11 Hawaii Army National Guard soldiers supporting refueling and transportation operations; and seven Army wildland firefighters from Oahu and dozens of staff that helped cook, feed and support the frontline workers.
All the elements worked in support of the lead agency, but at the helm of the Army team was Steven Coloma, fire captain of PTA Fire and Emergency Services.
“The fire was moving at 20-25 mph; the fire traveled a mile and a half in 20 minutes to jump into our property. With the pasture field grass that we have out here, that’s how fast it can move,” said Coloma. “The fire was eating up ground, all we can do was carrel it and defend it from jumping on county land—basically keep it on Army land.”
“What made it more complex is that we really had multiple incidents at one time. The fire started as a [single] fire, and because of the wind it split off into two separate areas,” said Coloma, who has been with PTA Fire and Emergency Services for 24 years. He went on to say that during his tenure, the wildfire was unlike anything he has ever encountered.
The fire started Friday, July 30, and by Saturday, July 31, aerial firefighting assets were requested from 25th Combat Aviation Brigade located on Wheeler Army Airfield.
“I got the call last Saturday night that the fire was gaining strength and that it was getting to the point that the PTA firefighters could not contain it themselves,” said U.S. Army Major Lee Jones, battalion operations officer for 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment. “We immediately deployed five aircraft, split from Saturday and Sunday, three UH-60s, one HH-60 and one CH-47, out to the Hawaii Island to begin fighting.”
Jones immediately tied in with Lt. Col. Kevin Cronin, PTA garrison commander, and Coloma for an initial assessment of the situation.
“From that conversation, the priority was some threatened and endangered species that reside on PTA. Once we got that initial assessment from the PTA firefighters, we started hitting the areas around the threatened and endangered species,” said Jones. “That was PTA garrison commander’s number one priority—fire management on federal land, and ensure we saved the threatened and endangered species.”
Located between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes, the 132,000 acres or 210 square miles that make up the military’s largest training area in the Pacific, PTA is home to one of the world’s rarest ecosystems. Nineteen endangered species, 15 of which are plants, grow and live there.
Endangered habitats located in the numerous hills or “pu’u” were not the only priority. Located to the west of PTA is the populated Waikoloa Village and located to the southeast is Waiki’i Ranch.
Saving the pu’u and keeping the fire from spreading outside of PTA is what was driving the firefighting effort.
Jones said the most stressful point for the operation was when he would get a call from the fire-fighters on the ground that the fire was threatening to jump a fire break or was threatening to jump over a road and would pose a threat to suburban developments or housing subdivisions.
“When life or property were at stake, that was the biggest stressful point for the crews to get out there and help the local community to save their homes,” he said.
During the firefighting operation, 268 aerial water buckets were dropped on the fire, totaling more than 169,000 gallons of water.
As vast and unpredictable as the wildfire became in size and character, the communication and professionalism of all the entities rose to meet the moment.
“Success was a collective effort—from the aircrews to the aviation mission command node and from the PTA fire chief to the fire crews that were on the ground—obviously wildland fires are very unpredictable, so the hard facts of what was going on just weren’t there all the time just because of that unpredictability of the fire,” said Jones.
To help with the coordination, the PTA fire chief assigned a firefighter to ride in one of the Black Hawks. And, due to coordination, the firefighters on the ground were able to get real-time information to the pilots.
“[The pilots] were getting communicated internally as to where would be the best spots for our aircraft to go to fight the fire with the biggest need. It made all the difference.”
“Once employed, [the flight crew] were extremely proud to help the local community in this multi-day and night effort.”
“All five crews out there flew safely and made smart decisions and used critical thinking in order to successfully fight the fire. Every one of them that were out there did a phenomenal job. I can’t thank them enough for their professionalism,” said Jones.
“I am truly proud of the efforts by our aircrews supporting firefighting operations on Hawaii Island. I also appreciate the great teamwork with our Pōhakuloa Training Area and Hawaii Army National Guard partners,” said U.S. Army Col. Robert Bryant, commander of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade.