Self-preservation backed up by stringent building codes can significantly limit the potential for fire damage.

In a state that has grown accustomed to threats from tsunamis and hurricanes, the disaster in Lahaina is exposing the need for new kinds of vigilance to protect lives, homes and communities.

Fire forecasting organizations are sounding the alarm: There is “above normal significant fire potential” across much of Hawaii through October, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Hawaii’s counties have 96% more “wildfire hazard potential” than other communities in the rest of the nation.

Fire prevention experts with mainland expertise but local ties to Hawaii said this week that they believed the conversation about wildfire has changed forever now, both in the state and nationwide, as a result of the Lahaina fire.

“Hawaii is paying the price for our misunderstanding as a society of the scope of the problem,” said Gary Honold, regional director for the National Fire Protection Association, a frequent visitor to the islands who monitors fire safety legislation in Hawaii. “It’s unfortunate that the Hawaiian people are the ones that had to pay the price for us to embrace it, and see it as a wakeup call.”

The reduction in plantation workforce and land management decisions have added to Hawaii’s fire risk across the state. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

There are many reasons that the threat throughout much of Hawaii has become elevated: Climate change making the planet hotter, episodic drought, recurring high winds, the speedy growth of invasive grasses, the loss of the plantation workforces who kept fires in check, water shortages and mistakes in land management.

These issues came to the fore in the past two weeks in the debate over what had led to such catastrophic loss of life and property in Lahaina.

But fire experts say there are steps people can take now to mitigate some of the danger and stop the spread of fire. They point to key factors that determine which houses burn and which do not, including choice of roofing materials, landscaping options, eliminating yard junk that attracts burning embers and reducing the number of structures placed in close proximity to each other.

Legislatively, they add, Hawaii residents will need to come together and work with their neighbors to lobby for strengthened building safety codes that provide improved protection.

Self-preservation is a good place to start, they say, and can begin with an unblinking review of conditions in the home.

“What are the defenses we need to put into place to stop these initial ignitions?” asks Ian Giammanco, managing director of standards and data analytics and lead research meteorologist at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

Post-fire satellite image of an area of new development in Lahaina that survived the fire. (Provided: Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.)

Giammanco, whose wife grew up on Oahu, thinks he has the answer. He has just completed an aerial study of the destruction in Lahaina, examining photos, maps and pictures, to shed some light on what kinds of construction saved structures and lives there.

While the devastation was near total, he found one subdivision built between 2019 and 2020, containing both single-family and multi-family units, that survived almost intact.

The complex had features that the older houses lacked, including roofs made of fire-resistant asphalt shingles and non-combustible wall materials. It was also still relatively new, and the landscape vegetation was sparse and undeveloped, which Giammanco said meant there was “less connective fuel” for the fire to devour.

Other super-hazards include wooden privacy fences, which Giammanco said turn into “wicks that bring fire to the home,” and wooden shingles.

The Five-Foot Buffer

The National Fire Protection Association, which has been studying the growth of wildfires for more than 20 years, advises that property owners create a non-combustion zone on their properties by moving plants and bushes out at least five feet from the exterior of the house. They recommend that roots and gutters be kept clear of debris to make it less likely to catch fire.

Creating networks of people who can work together to press for enhanced fire safety measures on their streets and in their towns is key to finding community wide solutions, says Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan, program manager for Firewise USA, a trademarked organization backed by public and private money.

She is the conduit for about a dozen groups in Hawaii that work like fire prevention clubs that share tips and insights with each other about fire hazards and lobby for resources for fire prevention.

“Residents and communities need to be proactive ahead of fires to reduce the risk of having them ignite,” she said.

She thinks many more such groups are needed because people tend to become complacent and forget the dangers they are facing, even when faced with the evidence from the Lahaina fires.

“I would say this is not a one-and-done in terms of wildfire being a threat,” said Fitgerald-McGowan, who monitors the islands regularly for news of high winds, red flag warnings and drought.

Charred trees from a previous wildfire in the Waianae mountains. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Charred trees from a previous wildfire in the Waianae mountains. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Partly she does this for her job, but partly she does it out of family concern. Her parents live in Waianae, and they regularly call her with reports of being able to look up from their lanai to see wildfires erupting in the hills above their house. They send her photos as the blazes grown larger.

“Whenever they come to me, I say, ‘How close?’,” she said, and then “make sure your things are ready, that you are paying attention, have your phone on for those alerts and monitor them,” she tells them.

She hops on line to find out the extent of the danger and then relays to them whatever information she can glean about what to do next. She is concerned they won’t take it seriously enough.

“It always makes me worry,” she said.

If there could be any silver lining to this somber situation, it may be that more people will have much greater awareness of the dangers posed by wildfire and will take action more quickly to prevent them.

Sometimes a disaster can mobilize greater awareness and protect people elsewhere. The horror caused by New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire, for example, where dozens of workers jumped to their deaths in 1911 to escape a blazing fire in a high-rise factory, galvanized popular support for life-safety regulations, including fire sprinklers, emergency exits and occupancy limits.

The resulting changes to fire safety codes have saved many lives in the past century, said Valerie Marlowe, assistant director of the archives at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.

“Hopefully the way the Triangle Fire changed things in the United States, this fire can do the same,” said Marlowe, who still recalls the beauty of Maui from a vacation she took there some years ago. “Events like this that have significant impact can change things for the better and help safety in Hawaii.”

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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