State and county leaders reflect on Aug. 8 fires on Big Island, Maui and how they can be prepared in the future

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State, county and community leaders gathered in South Kohala Thursday night, to address the growing threat of wildfires to the Hawaiian Islands following the West Maui blaze that reduced Lāhainā to ash and left at least 115 people dead.

Hosted by the Waimea Community Association at Tutu’s House, the meeting provided the community an opportunity to listen to presentations about the Aug. 8 fires on Hawai‘i Island, how the fires behaved, what the response was and how the northern town can prepare for such a natural disaster in the future.

“I think in the last five years we’ve seen a change in the fire dynamic,” said Fire Chief Kazuo Todd.

The Waimea community has seen infernos up close with the Mana Road Fire in 2021 that torched 40,000 acres in South Kohala, destroying livestock and property. Todd said that was the first wind-driven blaze firefighters weren’t able to get ahead of.

“…The wind was pushing the fire faster than we could keep up with it,” the chief said.

It took several days before that fire, believed to be the largest in the state, was contained.


The South Kohala and North Kohala communities were again threatened by a wind-driven blaze on Aug. 8 powered by Hurricane Dora — downgraded later to Typhoon Dora — that passed hundreds of miles away from the island chain. The weather event sparked a high wind advisory and a red flag warning from low moisture.

Several fires erupted that day forcing road closures and evacuations at Kohala Ranch and Mauna Kea Resort at the Villas.

While the fire department was prepared, Todd said the Aug. 8 fires were unlike anything they’d ever fought in their careers.

“Some of our lighter personnel were having to hold on to the trucks so they didn’t get blown down the street,” Todd said.

The chief said the fire department’s normal suppression plans couldn’t be used. Typically, he said, they use bulldozers, and helicopter drops, and vehicles to catch the fire on the edges but with the high winds, it was all too much, too fast.


“We were just scrambling to get out there,” he said.

Still, Todd said Hawai‘i County is unique in terms of fire prevention because the county has access to volunteer firefighters, including 18 volunteer stations, as well as their 20 paid stations, allowing them to have more equipment and more manpower.

As a result, no homes were destroyed in the fire.

The fire department still doesn’t know exactly where or how the fire started but there is no evidence of arson.

“We are looking into establishing more cameras in the area,” Todd said, suggesting the equipment would help pinpoint causation in the future.


Sen. Tim Richards, who lives in North Kohala recalled to the crowd the morning of Aug. 8 and how he could see fire outside of his house. He said a neighbor rancher had a bulldozer in the area and they were able to tackle the fire early, and started cutting a fire break. Still the fire persisted.

“We were close,” he said.

Richards, who represents North Hilo, Hāmākua, Kohala, Waimea, Waikoloa, North Kona, said with seven fires happening that day, it was a collaborative effort among volunteer firefighters, Civil Defense, Parker Ranch cowboys, and the fire department that made sure the fires did not get out of control.

Richards commends the county’s preparedness, but said there’s room for improvement.

“We are well prepared, but we can be better,” he told the room.

Hawai‘i County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno talked to the group about how the county handled alerting the public about the Aug. 8 wildfires.

Magno said the county has a relationship with the National Weather Service, and that day they were tracking Dora closely. Knowing a threat was on the way, he said the county started sending out messages to warn residents to be prepared.

By Aug. 7, the county issued the warning messages and county departments were meeting to prepare for worst case scenarios. When fires broke out the following morning, emergency personnel were activated immediately.

Messaging from Civil Defense continued throughout the wildfires informing the public of evacuations, road closures and emergency shelters.

While the county may alert and communicate imminent threats to the residents, Magno said it’s just as important for the public to have a plan. He recommends all residents sign up for emergency message alerts, and to get to safety immediately if needed.

“The way to stop this (wildfires) is through prevention,” he said. “That’s how we work towards a resilient community,” adding the county will continue its communication alerts as well as emergency proclamations to prevent unnecessary fires during extreme weather events.

Magno also answered a question about that county’s plan if an evacuation is needed along Waikōloa Road, the single road in and out of that area.

He said they have a system where people recognize in a tier fashion what a situation is, and if people can, evacuate early.

“The hope is that everyone is not waiting until the last minute where the congestion is going to happen,” he said. “That’s part of our strategy is to get the information out through the education phase so people understand what the level of the threat is and people can make a decision where to go.”

“We prepare people do not wait until the last minute. That’s when the issues begin,” he said. “You’re risking your life and you’re rising first responders’ lives. So early evacuation based on the information given is key to a successful evacuation.”

Nani Barretto, executive director for the nonprofit Hawai’i Wildfire Management Organization, also gave a presentation about the organization and their tips on wildfire education and preparedness.

“We can design, we can build houses and subdivisions and retrofit existing ones in ways that can resist fire,” she said.

Barretto said planning, designing, code, and vegetation management are all required to reduce the risk of fire.

According to the organization’s website, there’s some proactive measures residents can take, such as clearing vegetation, never leaving a campfire unattended, and taking care of machinery that might spark such as weed whackers and chainsaws.

The organization also educates the public about the Firewise Program, where neighborhoods can become a Firewise community to help with prevention education.

Residents in Firewise locations can also take a free home assessment online to review of the vulnerability of their house and landscape to fires.

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda walked through preventative measures that the county and state should focus on moving forward, such as making sure there’s the proper infrastructure in place on the island to ensure there’s water, fire breaks, and plenty of support for the fire departments. She also mentioned the importance of targeted grazing during drought and/or dry seasons such as recent.

The conversation also turned to what is being done to help Maui.

Rep. David Tarnas, who gave his presentation via zoom, said he’s been focusing on implementing legislation that addresses temporary or transitionary relief and long-term relief as a result of the devastating wildfires.

Tarnas, who represents Hawī, Hala‘ula, Waimea, Makahalau, Waiki‘i, Waikoloa, Kawaihae, and Māhukona, said working groups were created to tackle the issues the neighbor islanders are facing, including their current challenges with schools, housing, food, wildfire prevention, shelter, jobs and business, environmental remediation, water, and more.

He said the working groups will “prepare recommendations for appropriate legislative action.”

Cyrus Johnasen, spokesperson for Hawai‘i County, discussed the county’s new task force, which aims to organize the efforts happening on Hawai’i Island in terms of support and outreach on Maui, including identifying those in need and creating a digital hub with employment, food and housing resources.

With homes and businesses destroyed, Johnasen said the recovery of Lāhainā will take a long time. “…As a collective group, we need to focus on those that need to relocate here.”

“How do we position ourselves to be able to intake folks seamlessly understanding they are essentially coming in as refugees?” Johnasen questioned. “They’re definitely not anywhere near the level of refugees from places like Ukraine, or Turkey, or Syria, but they definitely will be coming in with very little.”

Additionally, the task force aims to connect those in need of emotional, as well as logistical, support and will be meeting with the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in hopes of using the campus and student volunteers to help with social and mental health services.

Some of Thursday night’s speakers will be available for more questions on Saturday, during a Waimea Fire Prevention and Resilience Fair from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Mana Christian ‘Ohana Kahilu Town Hall.

For more information about the Waimea Community Association visit here.

Megan Moseley
Megan Moseley is a full-time journalist for Pacific Media Group. Her experience ranges from long and short-form reporting to print, digital, radio and television news coverage. In Hawaiʻi, she's worked for local media outlets and has covered a wide range of topics including local and state politics, environmental affairs, Native Hawaiian issues, travel, tourism and education. She covers the West for Restaurant Hospitality.

She's a 2010 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Magazine Journalism and specializations in Geology and History. She's currently working on her master's degree from New York University in journalism and is focused on conflict resolution and peace practices in indigenous cultures in the Pacific.

Megan can be reached at [email protected].
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