The Maui mayor’s office prepared an application for a fire mitigation grant for West Maui, but gave up on the effort last year after FEMA objected to the county proposal.

Maui County sought a federal grant to help prevent wildfires in West Maui in 2021, but county officials abandoned that effort after the Federal Emergency Management Agency raised concerns about the county’s proposal, according to FEMA and state staffers who were involved in the grant application.

That abortive effort to seek federal funding to cope with the wildfire hazard in West Maui is yet another indication the county was well aware of the extreme risks in the area long before the devastating and deadly Aug. 8 fire that destroyed much of Lahaina.

Larry Kanda, a former Disaster Assistance Mitigation Planner with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said the grant would not have provided nearly enough money to address all of the issues that made West Maui vulnerable to wildfires, “but you could do a specific high-threat area.”

But even that never happened. “They were trying to take advantage of it, but somehow it didn’t go through,” Kanda said.

A brush fire razed Lahaina in West Maui, Aug. 8. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui County withdrew an application for a Federal Emergency Management Agency wildfire mitigation grant for West Maui last year, about a year before a brush fire razed Lahaina in August. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

FEMA and former employees with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency said the county qualified for a federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program Post-Fire grant following the Kahana Ridge Fire on Oct. 22, 2019. That fire threatened 500 homes in the Napili-Honokowai areas, and eventually burned 600 acres.

FEMA authorized a $422,000 post-fire fire hazard mitigation project by virtue of that Kahana Ridge fire, and set a deadline of March 31, 2021 for the county to apply to FEMA for the money, said Theresa Woznick, who was State Hazard Mitigation Officer for the HIEMA at the time.

“We had asked the administration that time, ‘Hey, this is money for you guys to do whatever you want in terms of wildfire mitigation,'” Kanda said.

Staff in the Maui Emergency Management Agency had little or no experience in the complex area of hazard mitigation grant applications, so the mayor’s office during the administration of Maui Mayor Michael Victorino took control of the effort, Woznick said.

The county decided to focus on wildfire mitigation for West Maui, developing a proposal focused in large part on removing trash, abandoned vehicles and clearing homeless camps along the Honoapiilani Highway, which the county determined was a high fire risk, she said.

But FEMA objected to the county’s proposal, Woznick and Kanda said, and the grant initiative fell apart.

“There were issues with the benefit-cost analysis of the project,” said FEMA Region 9 spokesman Robert Barker in a written statement. “The removal of homeless encampments, vehicles and human-caused debris was included in the project’s scope of work, which do not qualify as eligible activities under our Hazard Mitigation Assistance grant program, aimed at mitigating against ‘natural hazard’ events.”

In general, eligible HMGP post-fire activities are oriented more toward work such as creating defensible spaces and barriers to fires, and implementing “ignition resistant construction” or hazardous fuels reduction, he wrote.

Barker said in his statement that FEMA had encouraged the county to submit other potential projects within the application period “in case the primary (proposal) fell through,” but no alternatives were ever provided.

He said FEMA’s Region 9 has weekly calls with HIEMA to discuss open projects, and “we offered support to assist with ineligible components of the project numerous times.” That included an offer to send a FEMA staffer to Hawaii “to work directly with the county to scope and develop an eligible project.”

“Regrettably, the county withdrew its application on July 25, 2022,” Barker said, which was about three months before Victorino was voted out of office and replaced by Mayor Richard Bissen.

Woznick and Kanda said the FEMA hazard mitigation grant application process is complex and difficult to navigate — so much so that the U.S. Government Accountability Office has urged FEMA to simplify the process.

The Maui mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment last week about the FEMA grant application.

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

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