The recent run of emergency incidents across the state have put disaster preparedness on the minds of many Hawaii residents.

The West Maui fires that lit up in the shadow of Hurricane Lane were particularly tragic in that, unlike the hurricanes, flooding and lava flows, wildfire is the one disaster that is preventable. So were the large fires this past month that endangered hundreds of homes and damaged thousands of acres of Hawaii’s irreplaceable native ecosystems on Oahu and Big Island. These incidents provide a stark wake up call as to how vulnerable to fire we have become.

The residents of Lahaina who lost their homes and property are well within their rights to be upset. However, placing blame on the county and state emergency response is unwarranted and misses the broader context of why these fires are happening. Hawaii has seen a four-fold increase in the area burned by wildfires within the past couple decades. This is absolutely not the fault of the firefighters and, in fact, we can be thankful to their service that there haven’t been more homes lost to fires over the years.

So what’s going on? Fire science and a bit of history can help us figure things out.

The August 2018 wildfires in Waianae Valley. Courtesy: Clay Trauernicht/2018

Three things drive fire risk — ignition sources, weather/climate and vegetation. Wildfire ignitions in Hawaii are almost entirely on us. Human-caused ignitions, both accidental and intentional account for some 99 percent of all fires in the state. Incredibly, we average about 1,000 ignitions each year of which just a small fraction become large fires, again due to rapid response by local firefighters. But this also means the risk of ignitions is nearly constant.

Hawaii’s climate is also incredibly conducive to fire occurrence. Folks that live in leeward areas are well aware how dry Hawaii can get. But it is actually the cycling of wet and dry conditions that really ramp up fire risk. This past wet season was wetter than average, especially on Maui.  All that rain results in an explosion of growth in the grasses and shrubs that surround many of our homes and run up into the lower edges of our watershed forests. The fuel build up essentially primes the landscape for high fire risk during the summer dry season and out-of-season droughts, which rapidly make all that fuel nice and crisp and ready to burn.

Placing blame on the county and state is unwarranted and misses the broader context of why these fires are happening.

This cycle may be most apparent in our leeward areas, but drought can lead to high fire risk in windward areas too.  One of the most disastrous fires in Hawaii’s modern history happened in 1901 along the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island, burning an estimated 30,000 acres over the course of three months. The fire woke up the territorial government to one of the core values of our forests, namely groundwater recharge, and inspired the establishment of Hawaii’s Forest Reserve system and what would become the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Vegetation may be the most problematic issue facing fire management in Hawaii. Simply put, our communities and forests now exist amid an ocean of fire-prone grasslands and shrublands — about a million acres statewide. This is mostly a consequence of benign neglect as the value of real estate outweighs the value of maintaining production landscapes. Our agricultural and ranching footprint has declined by more than 60 percent across the state.

Satellite image of the fires that threatened Lahaina. Courtesy Clay Trauernicht

When left fallow, the old cane fields and pastures fill in with African grasses and haole koa (hailing from central America). These plants not only readily and rapidly carry fire, they thrive in the post-fire environment, expanding their populations and limiting the chances native plants or other, less flammable plant species to take hold.

On the mainland U.S., much of the risk of fire to people is a result of developing homes in naturally fire-prone ecosystems — think of California chaparral and western conifer forests. By contrast, in Hawaii we have essentially allowed incredibly fire-prone, nonnative tropical grasslands to establish at the doorsteps of our communities and watersheds. The vast extent of these fuels places an unprecedented burden on our firefighting agencies. What’s more, as production agriculture shrinks, so does the availability of resources such as roads, water, and heavy equipment that provided critical support for fire suppression.

Hawaii Wildfire Lookout!

So what can we do about it? Awareness and education is the first step. Multiple state and county agencies and non-profits are working on this via the Hawaii Wildfire Lookout! Campaign, spearheaded by the Department of Land and Natural Resources and Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. Fire prevention education can reduce accidental fires. Homes can be “hardened” to reduce the risk of loss. Communities can become “firewise” and organize to take actions such as increasing access for firefighters and reducing hazardous fuels near homes.

Vegetation is in some sense the simplest issue to tackle because it is the only fire hazard we can directly manage.  Yet it is also the most challenging due to the scale of the problem — the million acres of grasslands and shrublands across the state. There are multiple solutions for reducing risk in these fuels: fuel breaks, targeted grazing, prescribed fire, the restoration of agricultural and native ecosystems. There are also regulatory measures that can help such as firewise building and development codes.

None of these actions to mitigate fire risk are beyond our ability to implement. But the sheer scale of the problem stretches well beyond capacity of all of our fire response agencies. As an example, the Hawaii State Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s Fire Management program has a budget of just $900,000 for coordinating wildfire mitigation and suppression on about 2.4 million acres, more than 60 percent of the state’s land area.

We have the knowledge to protect the resources we value — our homes and watershed forests — but this requires both systematically analyzing the risk and, more importantly, developing the public support and political will to make these actions feasible.

Climate and weather, of course, lie largely beyond our control. But we can use climatic events such as this past wet winter and El Niño-driven droughts to better prepare for times of high fire risk. And while climate change has not yet pushed fires beyond the realm of experience as we are seeing in California, predicted drying trends in leeward areas and increasing rainfall variability will only add to the challenge of fire suppression.

The incident at Lahaina was indeed a tragedy and dramatically compounded the risk posed by Hurricane Lane. Yet given these conditions which make the threat of fire nearly constant in Hawaii, these fires should not have come as a surprise.

The 30,000 acres that have burned in August alone across Oahu, Maui and Big Island reveal just how vulnerable we are to these impacts. The simple fact remains that, unlike the hurricanes and volcanoes, these fires are the one disaster we can avoid. We must simply choose to do so.

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