The return of visitors to the Garden Isle after more than a year of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an increase in rescues.
This month alone, first responders were called out to at least three separate rescues. On July 7, Kaua‘i Fire Department (KFD) responded to two separate rescue incidents, one in Kōke‘e and the other in Po‘ipū, where a hiker and swimmers were rescued. July 11, Ocean Safety Bureau (OSB) rescued three distressed swimmers off Wailua.
On June 29, KFD had its first air rescue mission after a visitor fell 30 feet while hiking Sleeping Giant Trail in Wailua.
More ocean rescues have occurred in the past six months than in the entire year of 2020. From January 1 to June 30, the OSB has responded to 128 incidents. Last year, they responded to 122.
In 2019, there were 301 water rescues according to the OSB.
So far this year through July 9, KFD has conducted 65 rescues. In 2020 there were 89 and in 2019 168.
Due to the pandemic and fewer travelers, KFD and OSB saw fewer rescues in 2020 compared to previous years. This year, officials say, the number of rescues are comparable to pre-pandemic levels.
Historically, officials say, rescues are more prevalent in the ocean. This continues to be the trend in 2021. This year, first responders are seeing more rescues involving visitors.
“As the visitor population continues to grow daily, the chance of rescues also increases,” said OSB Chief Kalani Vierra. “The island offers many hidden beauties, which at times can also be some of the most dangerous locations.”
Every day this month, more than 2,000 transpacific travelers have flown into Līhu‘e Airport, according to Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s daily transpacific arrivals report. The highest number of daily arrivals was on the Fourth of July at 2,923.
There were 73,018 visitors to Kaua‘i in May 2021, compared to 571 visitors in May 2020, according to HTA’s monthly visitor arrival report. Approximately 112,106 visitors were counted in May 2019.
As the visitor numbers to Kaua‘i continue to increase, officials from KFD and OSB are advising the public to be cautious. When planning outdoor activities such as hiking and camping, officials advise outdoor enthusiasts to let others know of their intended destination and return time, wear proper footwear, have enough water to avoid dehydration, do not hike alone, remain on marked trails, and stay alert of changes in weather conditions.
“Our focus remains on keeping our residents, visitors, and rescuers safe. Air, land, and sea rescue missions are dispatched for emergencies,” said KFD Chief Steven R. Goble. “These rescue missions are extremely technical and present an elevated risk to everyone involved. If a rescue is not deemed an emergency, a cost recovery process may fall upon those who intentionally disregard safety in order to maintain the viability of our rescue program.”
Upon looking back on the June 29 incident, the firefighter noted that access to the victim was difficult, but personnel was able to make contact, stay in place because dangerous terrain below her.
“The ledge wasn’t flat. It was on an angle,” the firefighter said. “There was little working room, but it was manageable.”
Ultimately, the firefighter said, they were able to secure and rescue the hiker using a short-haul system from Air 1.
“Anytime Air 1 is deployed, it serves a level of risk to first responders and those who need to be rescued,” stated one of the firefighters who responded to the incident.
KFD Assistant Chief Soloman Kanoho said first responders try to minimize the inherent risks of air rescues through continuous training, annual recertifications, and experience.
“‘Risk a lot, to save a lot’ is the fire service motto, and we do take calculated risks,” Kanoho said.