My experience with a Hawaiian wildfire

The wildfire in Maui has prompted strange conspiracy theories and allegations of government incompetence, the likes of which I usually gloss over and keep scrolling.  But I was involved in a wildfire in Hawaii in 1983 that went very differently.

I was a young grunt in the 25th Infantry Division, stationed at Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu.  The areas where we trained had been used for training since WWI.  It was not uncommon to be crawling through the guava patches and come upon a spent N-block clip from an M1 Garand rifle that had been out of commission since the 1950s.

My platoon was set in a defensive position at a place called "East Range."  We were told that when the opposing unit "aggressors" came into contact with us, the firefight would be initiated by the detonation of a grenade simulator.  We lay on the ground, pointing our weapons into lush tropical vegetation.

"BOOM!" was followed by the shouts of my squad leader: "Fire!  Fire!  Fire!"  OK.  We couldn't see anything, but we started firing blank ammunition in the direction of the enemy anyway.  "No, no, no, cease firing!" the same voice shouted out.  "Cease fire!  The jungle is on fire!"  The grenade simulator had ignited the vegetation surrounding it.

We didn't have a contingency plan for this.  We had planned to pretend to kill people, not deal with an inferno.  So we pulled back to an area that wasn't on fire, grounded our equipment, and returned to the fire to beat the flames out with our BDU shirts.

A wildfire tends to snap and crackle, but not pop.  This fire started to sound like popcorn cooking, and we realized that there was live ammo cooking off that had been left by some previous generation, just like the Garand clips.  So we fell back to where our gear was stowed and sat there, looking stupid.

Soon we heard the distant thumping of helicopter rotors as Hueys and Chinooks emerged with huge buckets slung beneath them.  They had flown over the Pacific, scooped up seawater, and dumped that payload on East Range.  Two or three dunks, and the problem was solved.  (No dolphins were harmed.)

When I was on Oahu, there were two Army posts on the island, two USMC installations, two USAF bases, and the Navy at Pearl Harbor.  So I got to wondering lately: where was that bucket brigade when Maui was on fire?  That's a 45-minute flight.

Granted, there weren't 90-mph winds when we set East Range ablaze, but chopper pilots have large stones.  How long did those gusts prevail?

President Biden has received a lot of flak for his response to the fire, from "no comment" to the $700/household relief package.  Loafers received more than that during the pandemic.  But I'm surprised at the absence of military presence in the footage I've seen.  When hurricane Eva knocked out power on Oahu, Honolulu had power the next day.  I was told that the Navy plugged a 6-foot-thick cable into a nuclear submarine at Pearl Harbor and jump-started the whole city.

We grunts spent the end of 1983 under Reagan helping the civilian population clean up and recover from the hurricane.  All those boots are 45 minutes away from Maui right now.  They've got the logistics to deliver food and medical assistance to that beleaguered island post haste.

That's the response we should be seeing from Washington on the news feeds.  Maybe it's there, just not prominent.  It should be.  Where there is tragedy, there are heroes.  Sic 'em.

Mike VanOuse is a retired Factoryjack and Bible-thumper.  His biblical commentary can be found on Substack, and his books are splayed at

Image: Bureau of Land Management via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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