Hawaii Is Prone To Fire But State Money To Control The Problem Is Lacking

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Northbound on Kamehameha Highway, hidden behind the overgrown, highly flammable Guinea grass, a graveyard of hundreds of abandoned car carcasses sit untouched like an apocalyptic scene in a sci-fi adventure film.

Aside from the perfectly intact Coors Light baseball cap baking in the sun and a faded Little Tikes Cozy Coupe car hiding behind a tree, few signs of life remained.

The Sept. 27 fire that swept through the former homeless encampment in Poamoho destroyed 50 acres of state agriculture land and poisoned the future of healthy vegetation.

Wildfires like the one that raced through Poamoho are increasing in frequency and size across the state, according to Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization director Elizabeth Pickett.

Approximately 20,000 acres of land burn every year in Hawaii, a 2018 state wildfire risk assessment found. However, this summer the Mana Road fire on Hawaii island burned twice as much as the annual average, scorching over 42,000 acres — about a tenth of the total size of Oahu.

So far, the Honolulu Fire Department recorded 355 wildland fires that burned a total of 315 acres this year on Oahu.

“We are a fire-prone state,” Pickett said. “We are right up in there with all the western U.S. mainland states that have a huge fire problem — Hawaii statistics match right up with them.”

Scores of burned cars sit on state agriculture land near Poamoho Camp outside Wahiawa. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

University of Hawaii wildland fire researcher Clay Trauernicht said the Mana Road fire destroyed about 1% of the state’s land area while the average number of fires that occur in one year in California account for about 0.7% of its land area.

“When you have such limited land area, it just speaks to how vulnerable the resources are,” Trauernicht said.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning on Wednesday indicating perfect conditions for wildfire spread for all leeward areas across the islands. And on Thursday morning, a 3-acre wildland fire rapidly neared homes in Waianae. After three hours, the fire was 100% contained with zero injuries and no structures lost, according to HFD.

The red flag warning will remain in effect until Saturday and unlike fire-prone states that have dozens of weather stations, Hawaii has only one station near the Honolulu Airport that assesses fire risk for the entire state.

In 2019, Trauernicht said there were no red flag warnings when a wildland fire broke out on Maui because Oahu experienced 4 inches of rainfall while those showers missed other neighboring islands.

‘We Have A Lot To Lose’

Pickett studied marine science in college, but she soon discovered that wildfires are a leading cause of death for Hawaii’s coral reefs, among other environmental and economic problems. She explained that burned waxy-like soil sloughs off into the ocean, killing marine life and corals.

“It looks subtle, but once you get into it you’re like, ‘oh my gosh it’s immense!’ It’s everything from invasive species to protecting native habitats to protecting drinking water and air quality and agriculture and tourism and economics because we’re not doing the preventative side of things and we’re not doing mitigation,” she said.

Wildfires also kill most native vegetation over the long term because burned areas are replaced with invasive grasslands, so ground water supplies are not restored for watersheds.

This interactive map shows the perimeter of wildfires in Hawaii between 1999 and 2020. Zoom in to see details of each island or type a location in the search bar (Source: Clay Trauernicht).

But government funded solutions for preventing and fighting wildfires are few and far between.

The state has eight different fire agencies, tracking areas with inconsistent data collection, Pickett said.

When Trauernicht began sifting through documents to create a comprehensive report to map out previous fires, he had to request records separately from each agency and piece together various data reporting styles. He said researchers and non-profits still don’t have the type of funding that’s necessary to mitigate fire risk across the islands.

Hawaii’s population is growing and more and more land is being lost each year. “We have a lot to lose,” Trauernicht said.

The state Division of Forestry and Wildlife received about $800,000 in 2020 for fire supression. Michael Walker, DOFAW’s state protection forester, says the amount is small considering the agency manages about 25% of all the land in state — about 1 million acres.

Walker said the budget can fluctuate between $600,000 and $1.8 million depending on the year, noting that the rolling average is about $1.2 million.

But many communities cannot afford to wait for the government to prioritize wildfires, especially lower income communities experiencing drought.

Fire Does Not Respect Fence Lines

After dedicating 28 years to the Honolulu Fire Department, helping put out fires throughout Waianae, Bulla Iaea was ready to retire his firefighting skills, move to a 6-acre plot in Makaha and start an aquaponics farm. But the summer of 2018 changed that.

“I had every faith in the fire department, you know, til my place burned, and then I learned on my own that I really couldn’t rely on them,” he said.

Waianae Farmer Bulla Iaea calls his sheep over to the fence line. Iaea shares that the sheep eat the vegetation lowering the amount of fire fuel for future brushfires in Waianae Valley.
Waianae Farmer Bulla Iaea calls his sheep over to the fence line. Iaea shares that the sheep eat the vegetation lowering the amount of fire fuel for future brushfires in Waianae Valley. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

On Aug. 4, 2018, two brush fires swept through Oahu’s Leeward coast, nearly killing Iaea’s neighbor and burning down multiple structures across different agriculture lots.

“I went through an emotional rollercoaster,” Iaea said describing it as the worst feeling of his life.

Since then, he’s taken matters into his own hands to protect his home and Waianae.

So, with a grant from the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, Iaea purchased six sheep to help eat the invasive grass that easily catches fire on dry, windy days.

Fire loves three things, he says — heat, oxygen and fuel. So, while he cannot control the weather, he can somewhat control the land surrounding his property.

Despite the hundreds of acres that Iaea will not be able to manage — some of which are owned by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and Hawaiian Electric Co. — he said he’s hoping to lead by example, serving as a model for the government to invest in similar projects across the state.

“We have three elementary schools and homesteads that are right on wildfire interface,” he said. “We’re in the hottest spot of the island, one of the driest spots and one of the poorest spots, so the vulnerability is very real.”

Waianae farmer Bulla Iaea.
Waianae farmer Bulla Iaea sits on his porch on the west side of Waianae Valley where brush fires have destroyed his land every other year since 2016. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Power To The People

According to Pickett, Iaea is just one example of a growing number people taking action on their own.

“Less than 1% of all these fires are caused by lava and lightning. Everything else is human,” she said, adding that about 75% are accidental.

In 2004, Kohala-by-the-Sea became the first community in Hawaii to become a nationally recognized Firewise Community, educating community members on how to protect their homes. And since 2014, at least 10 more communities have also become recognized statewide.

Pickett said that 50% to 75% of communities only have one access route, so the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization is also working to retrofit roads in high fire risk areas.

“Fire is where environment meets people and I see the power in what people are doing to become climate resilient.”

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