While city-owned land makes up a relatively small portion of Oahu, groundskeepers need to be strategically redeployed to stave off wildfires.

As the City and County of Honolulu looks to best prepare itself against the same kinds of deadly wildfires that swept West Maui, it is facing a familiar challenge: too many vacancies in the city’s workforce. 

Some departments are in better shape than others. 

“Our fire department is full,” said Mayor Rick Blangiardi. “And it will continue to be full, because everybody likes to be a fireman.” 

But beyond fighting fires, a key component of wildfire mitigation is vegetation management, which means both clearing out firebreaks and removing buildups of flammable vegetation.

Honolulu Hale.
The City and County of Honolulu struggles with a workforce vacancy problem, which Mayor Rick Blangiardi said became a surprise priority for him when he entered office in 2021. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

This has become apparent to the city’s managing director Mike Formby who is consulting with other government officials and people who specialize in fire as part of a Blangiardi-ordered review of Oahu’s fire risk and disaster preparedness. 

“We call it dry grass. They talk about it in terms of fuel, because to them it’s a fuel source,” he said.

The city departments positioned to manage this vegetation-gone-amok are the Department of Facility Maintenance and the Department of Parks and Recreation.

“That’s a huge issue, because right now, those departments do have severe manpower shortages,” said Formby. “They struggle to meet their park maintenance demands and roadway demands – grass along the side of the roadway – and now we’re talking about thinking much bigger.”

Reprioritizing Resources

To deal with the problem and learn from Maui, the city will have to be creative with its resources. DPR is beginning to reprioritize where it positions its groundskeepers and is working to promote its recently rejuvenated adopt-a-park program to essentially outsource maintenance to concerned residents.

As a percentage of total land, the city’s share of Oahu is small. Private landowners as well as the state dwarf the city’s holdings, meaning that management of the city’s own land is just one part of the island’s overall defense against wildfires. 

But it is low-hanging fruit – a step toward modeling best practices for other landowners around the island.

To that end, DPR Director Laura Thielen said her department is seeking advice from the Honolulu Fire Department on which areas should be prioritized.

Resources are limited. As of mid-August, DPR’s groundskeeping division employed 414 full time equivalent staff members and had a vacancy rate of about 20%, according to spokesman Nate Serota. 

While significant, officials say it’s relatively manageable – especially compared to the city’s 40% vacancy rate for engineering positions, according to Department of Human Resources director Nola Miyasaki.

City park officials are hoping that their adopt-a-park program, like what they have with a group at Diamond Head’s dry and brown Kuilei Cliffs, can help fill the pukas in responsibility left by their workforce vacancies. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2022)

“I think right now that’s not the issue for us,” said Thielen, referencing the vacancy rate. In her view, such a large division is bound to have vacancies. And its size means there are plenty of workers to pick up the slack. 

Right now, she said, the issue is about where maintenance is being focused.

“We have some areas of land that are not maintained because they are not a used area,” she said.

Used areas include places like ball fields and pools areas – “the areas of the parks that people go into,” said Thielen.

“But there may be fringe areas that are outside of a usable park, or there may be lands that were acquired for park use in the future that have not been developed. And those areas are not regularly maintained,” she said.


She recognizes that priorities need to shift. But that’s a challenge with a finite workforce – which is short about a fifth of its employees.

Questions that must be considered include: Which of these unmanaged areas are most prone to burn? How much should they prioritize maintaining these areas versus the active recreation areas? How big should a firebreak be on land near homes?

“Is it five feet, 10 feet, 20 feet or whatever? And so that’s where we need to work with the fire department to identify what would be the optimal maintenance for that specific site,” said Thielen.

DPR has contacted HFD about setting up a time to talk about how to assess these unmaintained areas, she said.

In the meantime, the city’s adopt-a-park program, which officials said had been dormant during the pandemic, is another resource DPR hopes will help maintain unused park land. Just under 100 agreements have been established with private citizens, according to Serota, including a group at Diamond Head’s Kuilei Cliffs, a dry and grassy area overlooking the ripply blue surf. 

Vacancies also abound at the Department of Facility Maintenance, said Tyler Sugihara, chief of the department’s Division of Road Maintenance, which includes maintenance of medians.

“My division would be 505. I’m at 290,” he said.

Koolina Resort housing and view of the Aulani resort bordered by the stark contrast of the parched Waianae Mountain range. 2022.
Large parts of Oahu, especially on the West Side, experience dry weather that browns the landscape. This green view of Koolina Resort and housing, where vegetation management is commercially incentivized, contrasts starkly with the parched Waianae Mountain range. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Sugihara said that while this administration has been prioritizing filling these vacancies, the hiring process is still slow, and promotions could come quicker as a way to incentivize workers to stick around.

Improving Recruiting

DPR has been conducting mass hiring sessions where dozens of people might be interviewed to fill a number of vacancies, said Thielen. If not enough slots exist to accommodate each qualified candidate, those candidates will end up on a sort of waitlist, to be reevaluated down the line if another slot opens up – and they have not started another job by then. 

As departments narrow their methods for vegetation management, they will have to thread a tricky needle. Wildfires pay no respect to property lines drawn on a map, meaning that neighboring landowners have to coordinate their management practices to most effectively halt the spread of fire. 

This area along Farrington Highway near Kapolei, looking toward the H-1 freeway, is covered with dry vegetation that is has grown over a petroleum pipeline.(David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Through Formby’s upcoming working group meetings, city entities are trying to learn from the Aug. 8 fires on Maui, which were fueled in part by invasive grasses that had been allowed to proliferate as well as high winds from an offshore hurricane.

Blangiardi said the city has reached out to the military to explore coordination and possible use of military resources such as helicopters that could help douse potential fires.

“We’ve already had a couple meetings with the military on this – their capability and what they might be willing to do to assist us,” Blangiardi said Tuesday during an interview with Civil Beat’s editorial board. 

According to Formby, the military typically does not engage its own resources unless a military asset is threatened.

“Maybe we can have a future relationship where we can have some flexibility on that,” he said. “So that’s the kind of stuff we’re talking about.” 

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