Tour van bursts into flames near the summit of Mauna Kea

Local News

HAWAII ISLAND (KHON2) — What was meant to be a sunset tour up to Mauna Kea, turned into a harrowing experience when a tour van caught fire near the summit — miles from any emergency responders.

A charred metal shell is all that is left of the van that burst into flames more than halfway up Mauna Kea Access Road on Tuesday, Nov. 9.

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The driver was taking eight passengers up to the top of Mauna Kea for sunset when he smelled smoke. He was able to get everyone out before it went up in flames.

University of Hawaii (UH) Mauna Kea ranger Oscar Pouoa said they were doing their rounds when they saw the smoke.

“We weren’t sure what it was,” Pouoa said. “We realized there was black smoke coming from above us. So, as we got closer, we realized that there was a vehicle that was engulfed in flames. Then, we started hearing explosions coming from the fire — that would include the tires and, possibly, oxygen tanks in the vehicle.”

“It was super scary,” said Nahua Guilloz, UH Center for Maunakea Stewardship director. “Just to see some of the pictures of how quickly the fire burned, and in such a remote area, you know, it’s very scary.”

Guilloz said she is grateful the driver and passengers were OK.

“Some of the staff from the other observatories helped to calm them down, and other tour operators assisted in taking them back down to Hale Pohaku where our visitor information center is,” Guilloz added.

The blaze happened at around 12,000 feet elevation, according to Pouoa — that is about 1,800 feet shy of the summit.

“The danger is, of course, fire burning quickly, but also having emergency response is quite a ways away,” Guilloz said.

A federal fire crew from the Pohakuloa Training Area located 12 miles away arrived 30 minutes after the 911 call.

Rangers closed the road at night on Nov. 9, and the van was removed on Nov. 10.

According to Guilloz, having a car catch fire is a rare occurrence, but it is a stark reminder that Mauna Kea can be dangerous. There is 40% less oxygen at the summit — that can be hard on people and cars.

“If you’re taking a vehicle or your personal vehicle, I would say make sure it’s in good working condition,” Guilloz explained.

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The roads are very steep, and once people get closer to the summit, they are not paved. Instead, the roads are gravel and dirt.

“We’re always telling folks to be safe and use caution, you know, common sense,” Guilloz stated.

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