Hawaii Wildfire Threatens Protected Rainforest

03/23/2011 04:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

HONOLULU – Specialized firefighting teams Wednesday battled a remote wildfire touched off by the eruption of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island, which has burned some 2,000 acres of national park land.

The fire threatens a fragile, protected rain forest, officials said.

Authorities do not know when they will be able to contain the spreading fire, which was being fanned by strong, gusty trade winds, said Gary Wuchner, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

"It's a very remote fire," he said. "We just can't get to it."

Specialized firefighting teams from western U.S. states arrived to battle the blaze, some to rappel into fire-stricken areas and others to fight the fire on the ground along its perimeters, he said.

Firefighters also dropped water on hot spots from helicopters, Wuchner said.

The wildfire was caused by lava from the March 5 eruption of the volcano's Kamoamoa fissure, and is burning about seven miles southeast of the Kilauea Visitor Center, located on the volcano's east rift in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Authorities hope to protect a lowland rain forest on the east rift that is home to endangered Hawaiian bats, happy face spiders, carnivorous caterpillars and Hawaiian honeycreepers, all found only in Hawaii, the park service said.

Because of the rain forest, firefighters have opted not to let the fire simply burn itself out, Wuchner said.

"It's a remnant forest and if we lose it, it's gone forever," Wuchner said.

The wildfire is only about three-quarters of a mile from the forest boundary, he said. "It's pretty close," he said.

The fire has burned about 2,000 acres, Wuchner said.

Kilauea is one of five volcanoes that formed the Big Island, officially known as the island of Hawaii. Periodic eruptions of the volcano have destroyed 213 homes since the volcano emerged from a period of dormancy in 1983.

The latest episode began with the collapse of the floor of the Pu'u O'o crater and opening of the 535-yard-long Kamoamoa fissure on March 5.

(Reporting by Jorene Barut; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Greg McCune and Jerry Norton)

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