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Mel and Lester Gebin work to contain Kona Hema fire.
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Mel cuts firebreak to contain the blaze at Kona Hema.
Last year, on Christmas day, Mel Johansen was driving from south Kona to Waimea when he received an alarming call.
“There’s smoke rising from the forest!” exclaimed his son Josh.
Without pause, Mel wheeled around and headed back for Kona Hema, the Hawai‘i Island preserve that he manages for the Conservancy. There, at their base at Honomalino, he met up with his son and two-man field crew: Jake Coffelt and Lester Gebin.
“The four of us grabbed the fire gear,” Mel recalled “We loaded up the trucks and took the bulldozer.” Together, they headed up into the forest in search of the fire.
They soon found it, and for the next ten hours cut a firebreak before retiring for the night. When they returned the next morning, the fire had burned to the edge of the break—and stopped.
“We left to enjoy Christmas when the fire department arrived,” says Mel. “We were tired but happy.”
The next morning Mel’s phone rang again. It was the captain of the county fire department. The fire had re-ignited and jumped the firebreak, and they needed him and his bulldozer back immediately. Once again, Mel and his crew responded. This time they succeeded in containing the blaze.
Johansen’s response last Christmas was hardly unusual. During his 11-year tenure with the Conservancy, he has consistently gone beyond the call to protect not only the
8,089-acre Kona Hema Preserve but neighboring lands as well. In fact, the fire that day occurred on a neighbor’s property.
“Mel is the kind of person who always goes the extra mile,” says Robert Shallenberger, director of the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i Island program. “He’s dedicated and hard-working, reluctant to take credit for anything and quick to give credit to everyone else.”
Johansen’s dedication seems to know no boundaries—perhaps because he considers south Kona his own backyard. Born and raised on Hawai‘i Island, he is a fifth generation Big Islander whose family moved to Honomalino when he was three. He has lived in the area ever since.
“My father took a job here at Manukā State Park, where he worked for 35 years,” Mel says. “That’s where I began learning about native plants. When I was young, I would go with him and help out. One side of the park was dedicated to native plants and trees.”
In 2000, the Conservancy hired Johansen to care for its newly acquired Kona Hema Preserve. Back then, the property was over run by pigs, goats and mouflon sheep. More than a century of logging, grazing and invasion by weeds had taken its toll on the forest.
To restore the preserve, Johansen utilized his intimate knowledge of the area and the many skills he had honed over the years. Those who know Mel describe him as a jack-of-all-trades: a highly skilled mechanic and heavy equipment operator, as well as an experienced hunter and carpenter.
Johansen’s biggest accomplishment at Kona Hema has been fencing the entire preserve and removing all the pigs, goats and mouflon sheep. The endeavor took several years, but with the help of partners, volunteers and a team of trained dogs, he removed more than 1,000 pigs.
“When we first began removing the animals, no matter how hard we worked we couldn’t make a difference because they were reproducing faster than we were taking them out,” he says. “Rob Shallenberger recognized that we needed a faster, more focused approach. So we invested in more man power, new tools and enlisted additional volunteers.”
With such a vast area to manage, Johansen’s job never gets boring. “There is always so much to do and learn,” he says. “But what I love most is seeing the changes that have taken place as the result of our work. Watching the forest recover because it now has a chance is very satisfying.”