More funding proposed for Hawai’i Fire Department to prevent, battle wildfires
October 27, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated October 27, 10:12 AM
Hawai‘i continues to reel from the fallout of the devastating Maui wildfires of Aug. 8, in which nearly 100 people were killed in Lāhainā, the deadliest fire disaster in the United States in the past century.
The state also is drier than usual as it enters the wet season The islands are severely parched after several months of severe to exceptional drought, with climate models favoring below-average rainfall for the entire October-to-April wet season.
Those extremely dry conditions will increase the amount of fuel available for potential wildfires. And, toward the end of the rainy season, trade winds could pick up, creating conditions ripe for red flag warnings and out-of-season brush fires.
The Maui Fire Department did not have enough resources to battle the multiple early August blazes in West and Upcountry Maui that were under a red flag warning. Hawai‘i County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz wants to make sure the Hawai‘i Fire Department does have what it needs.
Resolution 333, which she will introduce Oct. 31 during a meeting of the Council Committee on Governmental Operations and External Affairs, urges Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth’s office to increase the Fire Department’s capacity and funding to enhance its ability to respond, prevent and mitigate wildfires and other emergencies.
“The demand for [the Hawai‘i Fire Department’s] services has risen significantly,” says an exhibit attached to the resolution.
The number of service calls has spiked 18.6%, from 24,954 in 2020 to 29,598 in 2022. This includes the August wildfires in Kohala this year and the Mana Road Fire in 2021, which scorched more than 40,000 acres, destroyed two homes and caused the evacuation of several West Hawai‘i communities, including Waikōloa.
Hawai‘i County has had six presidential disaster declarations in the past decade because of two tropical storms, two hurricanes and two volcanic eruptions, including the 2018 lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kīlauea.
The Big Island’s wildfire risk alone is substantial, affecting more than 62,000 people, or 24.4% of the island’s total population, and encompassing a total property value of $18.5 billion.
There also are 11,500 identified archaeological sites, 132 threatened or endangered species, 1.3 million acres of conservation lands and 1 million acres of agricultural property that could be impacted by wildfire and must be protected.
The areas most prone to wildfire have historically included Kaʻū, Kohala and North Kona, but there’s potential for blazes to spark anywhere on the island.
“Annually, the area burned by wildfires is on the rise while activities for prevention, mitigation and suppression have not kept pace with the escalating fire hazard, exponentially increasing fire’s negative impacts,” the resolution’s accompanying information says.
Kierkiewicz’s proposed resolution comes on the heels of a discussion about the County’s wildfire preparedness during the Oct. 3 meeting of the Council Committee on Communications, Reports and Council Oversight. Council members spent more than 90 minutes talking with Hawai‘i Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd and Hawai‘i County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno about the topic.
“I think it really kind of boils down to a simple question,” Todd said during his presentation. “You guys are asking about Lāhainā, Maui and whether or not the Big Island is prepared for a similar type event. The answer is, that is complicated.”
The Fire Department has not had any issues historically when it comes to brush fires. Todd said the response to those smaller blazes is generally fine. But wildfires like those on Maui are a completely different beast.
“The fires in Lāhainā, on our island, Mana Road two years ago, are these red flag, high wind fires and that brings a whole new level of complexity,” Todd said. “[It] is not as simple as throwing money at the Fire Department and solving the problem.”
Although, more money for the fire department will help.
Resources for wildfire firefighting are limited, with budgets barely covering annual firefighting costs and curtailing the department’s capacity to take proactive measures such as public outreach, managing possible fuel for wildfires, and improving firefighting access and water infrastructure.
Todd said during the meeting that his department needs more staffing, vehicles, money, “you name it.” Every time he’s had a budget conversation with the Council, he’s pointed out that the County pays for about half as much fire personnel per station and shift as O’ahu.
Hawai‘i County even pays less than Maui and Kaua’i on average for firefighters per station and shift, despite having more land to protect than all the other islands.
In concert with a rise in global temperature during the past 100 years, there’s been a decrease in the amount of land throughout the state and on the Big Island that is actively managed as sugar cane production made its way out, pineapple production wanes and pastureland has decreased.
That has allowed more invasive species, which dry out faster and create a ready fuel source for wildfires, to take over those unmanaged lands.
“We tore down all the native forests that weren’t really a fire hazard and then we kind of just didn’t replace them once we moved out,” Todd said. “Now it’s just a bunch of grass that burns.”
Does he think Hawai‘i County is prepared for a disaster like Lāhainā? Arguably, no.
“I’m not saying there aren’t many good things that we do on this island and that the department isn’t pushing forward and Civil Defense isn’t pushing forward with everything we possibly can, but I’m gonna argue that it’s not that simple,” Todd said.
He offered a slew of suggestions for the Council to consider:
- Encouraging more firebreaks around communities
- Real time monitoring of fire prone locations and hot spots
- Promoting planting of fire-resistant vegetation
- Regular clearing of dead vegetation
- Controlled burns
- Aiding community organizations and nonprofits in their efforts to prevent wildfires
- Looking at building codes to move toward more fire adapted communities
Todd also suggested possible tax incentives for property owners to better manage their lands or even charging more taxes or a flat fee for Hawai’i County to clear vegetation and brush that is a fire hazard.
“How do we get there?” Todd asked the Council. “It’s hard, right. We’re gonna need a lot of planning and things like that.”
Kierkiewicz’s proposed resolution for more fire department funding is a step in the right direction.
What once was a seasonal issue has become a year-round challenge, with mega blazes more common now than ever.
“These blazes are a wakeup call to the new, pervasive danger wildfires present,” according to the information accompanying Resolution 333. “In many communities, they pose the most significant threat to the quality of life, affecting and degrading the air we breathe, harming the environment, impairing the economy, destroying neighborhoods and, in some cases, taking the lives of the citizens we are sworn to protect and serve.”
Awareness about the risk and danger of wildfires has increased since the devastation on Maui. Todd said that’s been the largest change he’s seen since Lāhainā was destroyed. But wildfires are not new to Hawai‘i and the Big Island.
“The Community Wildfire Protection Plans put out by [the Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization], the Fire Department coming before you guys year after year to talk about the lack of funding and the lack of equipment replacement and things like that, that’s been the story for decades, right,” Todd said. “We just haven’t had the weather event that people are like, ‘Oh my god, it is an issue.’ So I think the dynamic has changed, the attention has changed in regard to fire.”