The average annual investment is about $2 per Hawaii resident, far short of what other fire-prone states spend per capita.

Hawaii has budgeted an annual average of $3.2 million on fighting wildfires over the past decade — about $2 per resident.

That falls far short of what most states in the western U.S. spend on fighting and preventing wildfires despite years of expert warnings and proposed legislation that never made its way into law.

Washington state, for instance, budgets more than double per capita what Hawaii does for fighting wildfires, appropriating an average of $83 million between 2015 and 2019. California set aside $21 per resident in fiscal year 2022 — $843 million. Oregon pays about 35 cents more per resident than Hawaii to fight wildfire, but has also invested hundreds of millions into an emergency fund.

A charred stalk of guinea grass in the area mauka of the Lahaina Bypass where a wildfire burned last week is photographed Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina. Utilities have not been fully restored.  (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Tufts of highly-flammable grasses, such as these in the area inland of the Lahaina Bypass, are highly susceptible to wildfire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Meanwhile, after particularly bad seasons, Alaska last year invested $20 per capita — $15 million — to reduce wildfire fuels and Florida set aside $4 per person — $93.7 million — for emergency wildfire management.

Every state’s budget accounts for its own unique and increasingly pervasive wildfire problems, the costs distributed among local, state and federal agencies in a complex bill that is often only settled months after the smoke clears.

For example, Oregon has appropriated $2.35 per capita for wildfire suppression every year since 2013 — $10 million per year. But the state also pays for firefighting through a dedicated emergency fund that private and public landowners pay into, which doubled its budget in 2020.

Fire crews on the mainland battle forest fires across state boundaries, sometimes for months on end, while fires in Hawaii — more often than not — are hot and fast and in savannah-like territory rather than dense forests.

Hawaii also falls short when it comes to preventing fires in the first place. Its effort is left to volunteers and the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, which largely relies on private and federal grants.

Hawaii’s wildfire fighters have been underfunded for years.

Many of those firefighters have been working on Maui, working alongside the county department — as they often do — to put out fires that began last week, including the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire that killed at least 114 people.

Those firefighters are forestry workers for the Department of Land and Natural Resources in the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, overseeing 26% of the land in Hawaii.

The money provided for fighting wildfires also has to cover a range of other needs like native species management and invasive species suppression. (DLNR photo)

Lawmakers’ Cold Shoulder For Wildfires

Governors have known that wildfire suppression funding has been insufficient for at least 16 years.

The funding for wildfire falls under DOFAW’s Native Resources and Fire Protection program, which this year got $17.2 million.

That money is not just for wildfire. It also has to cover native species management, invasive species suppression and the upkeep of Hawaii’s innumerable ecosystems.

A memo prepared by Gov. Josh Green’s administration in January said that the program had “minimal resources” to carry out its wildfire mandate. That memo was sent to the Legislature to inform deliberations on bills and the budget.

It said money was the program’s “greatest obstacle” and that it had “a critical lack of staff.”

The memo went further, saying there was “a lack of public investment” necessary to avoid, fight and clean up wildfires, “despite existing and increasing risks to public health, safety, and the environment from the effects of wildfire.”

That message was relayed to lawmakers 16 years ago almost verbatim, in a memo submitted by former Gov. Linda Lingle.

House Finance Committee Chair Rep. Kyle Yamashita of Maui pointed out that the program’s $17.2 million was about 270% higher than in 2015.

Ryan Chang of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
A Division of Forestry and Wildlife worker standing amidst tall grasses in Waianae, close to where Hurricane Lane fueled multiple, simultaneous fires in 2018. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Yamashita also said in a statement that last year the state allocated an extra $1.8 million to DOFAW’s annual “fire resources.”

But that’s just one year. The best way to measure wildfire budgets, according to Pew Charitable Trusts’ research, is to look at a longer horizon.

Pew researcher Colin Foard, who wrote “Wildfires: Burning Through State Budgets,” said that using historical averages is now generally seen as the most accurate metric.

In July, before the Maui fires, DLNR State Fire Protection Forester Mike Walker said that when he took on his role in 2017 there was little if any money for fighting wildfires.

Previously, the division had to borrow money from other divisions and funds to be able to do its job.

Now an average of $3.2 million of the program’s total funding is dedicated to wildfire suppression, which is the result of Walker’s lobbying in recent years.

The $3.2 million, while welcome, falls far short of what’s needed, Walker said.

A helicopter with water bucket flies over Kula Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, on Maui. Smoke could be smelled, but there was no fire visible in the late afternoon. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Helicopters, such as this one flying over Kula, are often hired by the state and county from private firms to help fight fires. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Walker and his wildfire fighting counterparts are putting out fires across the state, on top of their work as foresters, and can see the issue getting worse.

“We receive a fraction of DLNR’s budget,” Walker said. “We get like 10% of less than 1% of the budget. So if you look at the numbers, it’s a bit out of step.”

And much of the wildfire mitigation work has been left to the volunteers and HWMO working with DOFAW to stave off the risk of fire.

“The (DOFAW) ground pounders who are doing the work are doing wonders with what they have. It’s just not enough,” HWMO co-executive director Elizabeth Pickett said.

Warnings Unheeded

For years the wildfire issue has been largely shortchanged by lawmakers, despite the warnings and proposed legislation.

Every one of Hawaii’s legislators was invited to a January 2018 field trip conducted by state fire experts. Two months later, the House held a sparsely attended briefing on wildfire, organized by former Rep. Matt LoPresti. The Senate was invited to the briefing but no senators attended.

Chair Matt LoPresti conference committee hearing in room 329 at 130pm today.
Former Rep. Matt LoPresti, pictured here in 2018, believes the Hawaii State Legislature failed to heed warnings it received. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

“Honest to God, I feel that there’s blood on the hands of the Legislature for not doing what the experts have been saying for all these years,” LoPresti said. “If we had acted, we could have saved lives.”

The 2018 hearing came shortly after several natural disasters in Hawaii and on the mainland, as well as the false missile alert that January.

“People didn’t even come to the damn hearing,” LoPresti said.

Rep. Gregg Takayama introduced a bill that same year that would have established a task force to make recommendations on Hawaii’s disaster preparedness plan.

But wildfire was on the back burner in comparison to other natural disasters.

“I wish I could say – in hindsight – we had considered it more seriously than we did. But we didn’t,” Takayama said.

Fire experts have sounded the warning about the confluence of factors that led to an increase in wildfire since at least 2016, when a century of data was compiled in a paper that illustrated a troubling trend.

Clay Trauernicht of the University of Hawaii was one of the researchers responsible for that paper and presented his findings and other research to the House in 2018.

He spoke of the dire confluence of invasive grasses, drought and climate change, which has caused the area burned by wildfire to increase fivefold since the 1980s.

But he also bemoaned a lack of funding and focus.

A state Division of Forestry and Wildlife worker grabs gear out of a truck to go work on a fire break in the Waianae mountains. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The Division of Forestry and Wildlife maintains forests and fire breaks, and fights fires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

“From the federal side, there’s this growing recognition that fire is increasingly a threat for Hawaii,” Trauernicht told the few lawmakers at the hearing.

But in the years since 2018, wildfire measures have been few and far between.

Most did not directly create new programs to mitigate risk. And most were killed when they got to the money committees that must approve bills with dollars attached.

This year a set of bills aimed at funding a Community Fuel Reduction Program for DLNR were killed by the House Finance Committee. Yamashita said it was because the dollar amount was unspecified and the bill could remove the department’s financial flexibility.

In the bill’s earliest form it asked for $1.5 million per year for the next two years, and permanently established it in DLNR’s budget.

Yamashita added in a statement that Hawaii’s House Finance Committee was “committed to continuing to strengthen fire prevention resources in future budgets.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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