Longtime West Maui resident Joe Pluta said fires in Olowalu and nearby areas are inevitable, and it’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, but “how many times it’s going to happen?”
“It happens all the time. It’s notorious. It’s something everybody would dread,” Pluta said Friday, noting large fires in the past, including in 2018 and 2020, that burned homes, structures and thousands of acres. “Is it tonight that it’s going to happen? Or tomorrow? What are you going to do?”
Pluta and the organizations that he leads, the West Maui Improvement Foundation and West Maui Taxpayers Association, have embarked on an approximately $2 million campaign to build a fire substation in Olowalu.
Currently, Olowalu, Launiupoko and Ukumehame are all outside a 5-mile radius of the Lahaina Fire Station and are therefore at greater risk of fire and life safety, the organizations said.
With the private monetary help, in turn, the county will initiate land use approvals. The ultimate goal is to have the ownership of the property gifted to the county, according to a news release from the foundation.
“That’s what we did at Napili. We have a proven track record,” the West Maui Improvement Foundation added in its news release.
Some 20 years ago, the foundation raised around $4 million for the Napili fire station, which was gifted to the county, Pluta said.
At that time, Pluta, along with the late Maui architect Uwe Schulz and CPA Ron Kawahara, took out second mortgages on their homes to get funding for a construction loan.
The late Colin Cameron, chairman and president of Maui Land and Pineapple Co., donated the land for the Napili station, Pluta said.
The public, seeing the idea for a privately funded Napili station, wasn’t “all talk story,” got behind the idea and gave donations, Pluta said.
“We just need everyone to get excited about this,” Pluta said of the Olowalu fire station campaign. “The entire West Maui community is so important economically to the County of Maui. We cannot have a devastating fire again.”
Maui County’s administration, including the Maui Fire Department, backs the idea. A meeting was held on June 1 with the landowner, the mayor and county planning, budget and fire officials, who agreed to the collaboration.
“We definitely support the idea from WMIF and would like to see them be successful in completing this project,” Deputy Fire Chief Gavin Fujioka said Thursday.
“Having a fire station in Olowalu will allow MFD to have a quicker response to any emergencies in this general area. It’s somewhat in the middle of both bordering districts and this area is highly frequented by local residents and tourists,” Fujioka said.
He added that MFD is initially looking to have two personnel at the station, but more could be added in the future.
Getting a new fire truck for the station could take longer than two years, but a relief truck could be used in the meantime, Fujioka added.
Pluta said they allowed Fire Chief Brad Ventura to pick the site, which is approximately 200 yards mauka from the road at the improved intersection of Honoapiilani Highway near Mile Marker 14.5 and just mauka of Camp Olowalu.
The 2-acre parcel is owned by Olowalu Homes Inc., of which Pluta said developer Peter Martin is a major partner. Pluta added that if funds are raised for the station, Olowalu Homes will donate the land.
In an email Friday, Martin said he has been working with Pluta and has signed an agreement to donate land for the station in Olowalu.
While Martin “gets so much bad press,” Pluta said people shouldn’t steer away from the campaign, because the station was the organizations’ idea and the land that was picked just so happened to be Martin’s.
Pluta said that home and property owners in the area will benefit as first responders will be nearby and not only provide protection from fire but assist with medical emergencies.
That could also mean residents could see lower insurance rates, Pluta explained, pointing out that insurance rates are higher when homes are farther away from a fire station, and sometimes fire insurance won’t cover a home that is too far away.
In addition, donors to the project could benefit from tax deductions.
“It’s the best investment that you could make, period,” Pluta said.
The Lahaina Fire Station is 8.8 miles and a 15-minute drive from Olowalu General Store, according to Google Maps. The Wailuku Fire Station is 15.4 miles and a 25-minute drive from the store.
Pluta said the organizations are saving on the construction costs on the station as it will be a modular design, with the larger components built on the Mainland and shipped and assembled on-site.
This is why only around $2 million will be needed, he said. The Napili station was a brick-and-mortar building that cost $4 million at the time but would likely be much more expensive now, Pluta said.
For the Olowalu substation, the building process is quick, as it could take around 45 days for the parts to be built and shipped and another 75 days or so for the assembly on-site.
Donations may be made via check payable to the West Maui Improvement Foundation, with the fire station noted in the memo, and sent to WMIF, P.O. Box 10338, Lahaina, HI 96761.
Donations may also be made online via https://linktr.ee/wmif.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.