Hawaiʻi state working group digesting public testimony for wildfire prevention legislation
Wildfires have been a growing problem for decades throughout Hawaiʻi due to the significant change in large-scale land use and mounting impacts of climate change. But there was a lack of urgency by state and local government to take comprehensive action until Aug. 8, the day eight fires — including the catastrophic Lahaina blaze — burned simultaneously on Maui and the Big Island.
Soon after Maui and the world learned about the destruction of the historic seaside town, and the deaths of at least 100 people, the Hawaiʻi State Legislature quickly put together a Wildfire Prevention Working Group.
It is one of six bipartisan working groups chartered by the house leadership to address the Lahaina wildfire, the country’s deadliest in more than a century.
Just weeks later, on Nov. 1, the Wildfire Prevention Working Group published a draft report. On Nov. 17, it heard public testimony.
To start the hearing, state Rep. Darius K. Kila, co-chair of the working group, read part of the draft report’s summary: “We are at a critical decision point. Bold action is required to address the key drivers of catastrophic fires, significantly increasing the pace and scale of land management, and improving the resilience of our most vulnerable communities.”
The in-person and online testimony included numerous recommendations from firefighters, farmers, citizens and conservation groups about the need for restoration of land, more agriculture, better technology, better warning systems, more volunteer fire departments and more green waste facilities — and less above ground power lines. The working group also received 221 pages of written testimony.
Some of the community recommendations overlap the 42 recommendations presented in the draft report that cover seven areas: reducing ignitions, reducing fuel loads, community engagement, protecting communities, wildfire suppression, post-fire response and wildfire research.
“It’s a continuing, evolving document,” Kila said.
The working group will digest all the testimony and issue a final report on Dec. 15, in time to draft legislation for the upcoming 2024 legislative session that starts Jan. 17.
The Wildfire Prevention draft report highlights the problem. Since 2006, there is an average of nearly 1,000 fires a year on the Hawaiian Islands, burning an average of 20,000 acres statewide. In some years, 45,000 acres have burned. And, all counties have been experiencing large fires of 1,000 plus acres multiple times each year.
In addition to threatening people’s lives and property, wildfires destroy native watersheds and change soil, threatening native species and their habitats. It also threatens the state’s drinking water sources.
The draft report found that Hawaiʻi spends less than other states on wildfire prevention and response, budgeting an annual average of $3.2 million over the past decade (about $2 per resident). In fiscal year 2022, California set aside $843 million ($21 per resident).
Some key findings of the draft report:
- People cause 99% of wildfires.
- 26% (about 1 million acres) of Hawaiʻi’s total land area has been invaded by non-native, fire-prone grasses and shrubs. And this only gets worse with every fire that burns into native forest, allowing for more non-native species to flourish.
- Drought and climate change are exacerbating the risk of wildfires.
- Declines in active agriculture land use have reduced maintenance and access to roads, water sources, equipment and assistance, which previously supported firefighting.
- Many neighborhoods in Hawaiʻi have fire hazard issues that threaten life, including: a single road to evacuate and respond; pipe and fire suppression systems that are outdated or overburdened; narrow streets; and few firetruck turnaround options.
- Hawaiʻi has not adopted building standards that would better protect structures against wildfires, including requiring the use of fire-resistant materials and construction techniques or mandating that space around certain structures are clear of flammable vegetation. There are 21 states that have adopted specific standards for fire mitigation, according to the International Code Council.
- Most of Hawaii’s communities do not yet have well-developed and comprehensive emergency preparedness and disaster response plans.
- Hawaiʻi is the only state without a State Fire Marshal.
- There are some county fire companies within the state operating with staffing levels below the national standard.
Hereʻs some of the public recommendations:
Micah Munekata, director of government affairs with the Ulupono Initiative: “We believe that local food production and its significance to disaster response should be a central theme to the final report. … Nearly 40% of agricultural lands are considered fallow and can lead to unmanaged grassland fuels in absence of boots on the ground to detect and respond to fire.
“Active land management through agricultural production presents itself as a huge opportunity for the state and wildfire prevention. We understand that land management can be expensive and a long-term commitment, but why not commit to something we have all been talking about for many years, local food production?”
He said a promising funding source is the USDA Forest Service Community Wildfire Defense Grant.
Gordon Firestein, co-chair of the Launiupoko Firewise Committee in West Maui: He said more green waste facilities should be built.
“If we’re asking property owners to remove the vegetation on their property, they need a place to take it,” he said. “I’m not aware of any place on the West side [to take green waste], other than the recycling center in Olowalu, which is not open to commercial landscapers. And they’re the ones who are dealing with the largest proportion of green waste.
“So we desperately need a place where we can take green waste, have it processed into compost and have that compost made available to residents. And I’m sure there are many other places throughout the state that have that same issue.”
Several testifiers talked about the need for better technology that could identify the location of fires, and provide real-time information to first responders, even if phone and Internet service went out.
“Situational awareness is absolutely critical,” Firestein added. “When there is a fire, you see a plume of smoke. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell how far away that is; what the conditions are on the ground there. Should we be preparing for evacuation? It would be helpful to have better eyes on what’s exactly going on.”
He said that the Launiupoko Firewise Committee created a prototype system called the Launiupoko Fire Spotting Network, which has a series of video cameras aimed at the landscape. They have pan, zoom and tilt capability.
“But it didn’t work during the Lahaina fires because we didn’t have power, we didn’t have connection to the internet,” Firestein said. “So we need something that’s way more robust than what we can do as kind of a do-it-yourself, off-the-shelf system.”
He recommended the Alert Wildfire system used in California.
Rocky Mould, executive director of the Hawai’i Solar Energy Association: “Distributed energy resources, rooftop solar and energy storage can play a crucial and critical role in reducing wildfire risk from electrical power lines,” he said. “It can also provide resilient power when the grid goes down, or critical emergency services when they’re needed.
“My industry looks forward to working with the Public Utilities Commission, the Hawaiʻi State Energy Office, the legislature and you all to come up with, and Hawaiian Electric, to come up with plans for reducing wildfire risk in our electrical system.”
Anthony Ching, speaking for a coalition of The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, Resources Legacy Fund and Kupu: “As organizations focused on malama ʻāina, we see wildfire prevention as an interconnected component of conservation. Sound conservation will generally reduce wildfire risk, and some wildfire prevention includes conservation.”
Ching, director of external affairs for The Nature Conservancy, added: “For [the state Department of Land and Natural Resources] to reduce the threat of wildfires and other environmental disasters, the state must significantly increase funding for wildfire prevention-focused conservation and other natural resource management or restoration.”
He said funding could come from raising revenue from visitors, other means, or a combination of the two.
John Kikuyama, a retired chief master sergeant in the military: In written testimony, he offered many preventive measures. They included that Hawaiʻi issue a State of Emergency should be issued declaring dry invasive grass (Guinea and Buffel) and abandoned sugarcane wildfire fuel as a safety hazard and source of imminent danger.
“This declaration could go a long way in cutting through the “red tape” in addressing these hazards,” he said.
Mike Gordon of Waikoloa: In written testimony, he said: “Adopt new county and state regulations to promote the creation and maintenance of ‘defensible space’ by both public and private property owners, with fines and other legal consequences for violations. In addition, ensure that there are adequate resources to enforce these regulatory requirements.”
Mike Moran with the Kīhei Community Association on Maui: Although he represents South Maui, he said the association supports the West Maui Greenway.
“We were just looking at that West Maui Greenway as something that was advantageous for our multimodal transportation: every bicyclist reduces the volume of cars. … But we saw in this tragedy, if this [greenway] had been completed, how many souls might have been saved who were trapped in cars, who could have been on bicycles, or even just running or walking in a safe escape route. We in South Maui have a similar situation where we basically have one route out.”
George Purdy with the Hawaiʻi Pacific Advisory Group: He said the State Legislature should amend Act 288, the Aha Moku Bill, and add an emergency response within that section.
“In the Lahaina Emergency Plan, we actually use the Aha Moku as a extra manpower. Because we live on an island, we use all your assets on the island.”
Aha Moku is the Hawaiian system of natural resource management that has been handed down in oral tradition and practice for more than 10 centuries, and is based on the concept of `ahupua`a, the traditional land and ocean tenure system of Hawaiʻi.
Purdy, who also is an airport fire lieutenant, said for community members to “speak with the large landowners, make friends, and come up with plans to actually access these large land masses and create the green belts around communities.”
Purdy also recommends better technology for fire intelligence. “This is using unmanned systems, whether it is air, land or sea. … We, as incident commanders, who would be operating these [large-scale] events need current and up-to-date mapping pictures, information, so we can make strategic, offensive or defensive decisions.”
Ted Ralston, also with the Hawaiʻi Pacific Advisory Group: He recommended using artificial intelligence to simulate what fires do in 80 knot winds, versus 30 knots that are traditionally the windiest conditions for training.
“This is where the technology can come in and really help us,” he said.
And, he said more durable communications is needed: “No comms means nobody knows what to do. … We had a Japanese company that was proposing stratospheric airplanes that would provide persistent 5G downlink to anybody with a cell phone. Don’t even need a ground station, right to your cell phone. … That got kind of pushed out of Hawaiʻi. We couldn’t find a way to do business here, so they went to New Mexico to do the testing.
“And the system is now in operation in Africa. We got to think different about how we develop business and bring that back. We need that persistent overhead communications capability for all of the islands.”
Karen MacIsaac, resident of the Big Island: In written testimony, she said: “I live in one of these neighborhoods with one road in and the same road out. There are old cane roads that can be opened up to allow for evacuation travel. This should be done right away.
“There was a fire here two years ago and it was very scary watching the flames from my lanai, knowing that if it jumped the road we would have to drive through it to evacuate.”