Honolulu’s managing director will assess existing fire studies to determine risks as well as firefighting and other emergency response capabilities.

Honolulu officials are evaluating their own preparedness for wildfires as more extreme weather events heighten the risks.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi has directed managing director Mike Formby to research wildfire risk on Oahu, according to an Aug. 22 memo addressed to the Department of Emergency Management, Honolulu Fire Department, Honolulu Police Department, Honolulu Emergency Services Department, Board of Water Supply and Department of Facility Maintenance.

The idea is that compiling this information will help the city assess its own readiness to respond to current and changing risks “in light of increasing heat and drought predictions and trends,” according to the memo. 

Remnants of a tree is gutted by flames as smoke fills Waianae Valley during brush fires that lasted several days. 18 nov 2016
Remnants of a tree gutted by flames, as smoke filled Waianae Valley during 2016 brush fires that lasted several days. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

The review also will identify “firefighting and other first responder assets, capacity constraints, unaddressed needs and system vulnerabilities,” it said.

It’s unclear exactly what has been decided by this point, and Formby was not available for comment over the weekend.

But certain strategies are already known. 

A recent Honolulu City Council meeting saw some city department heads share their own perspectives, including about the need for access to fight fires.

On the West Side of Oahu, where residents are at the mercy of Farrington Highway’s traffic, a big topic is the long-awaited opening of the Waianae Coast Emergency Access Road. 

“This I think is the most important project for the Waianae Coast transportation infrastructure,” said Rep. Cedric Gates, who represents Waianae and Makaha. 

As it currently stands, discrete gated sections of road are owned by a variety of property holders, including the City and County of Honolulu. 

The leeward side of each island is especially vulnerable to wildfire. On Thursday, the Honolulu Fire Department announced it was increasing its staffing and equipment after the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the leeward sides of all the islands, which signifies greater risk of wildfire. 

Overall mitigation can be pursued even before disaster strikes.

The deadly fire that destroyed much of Lahaina on Aug. 8 did so partially because of how quickly it moved. Wind from an offshore hurricane swept the flames down West Maui at speeds of over 60 mph. Its path was facilitated by both the town’s dense historical architecture and swaths of highly flammable invasive grass.

Guinea grass is a major fuel of wildfires in Hawaii. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Guinea grass is a major fuel of wildfires in Hawaii. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Vegetation management is needed to reduce these fuel paths.  

A 2019 report from the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization that surveyed major Oahu landowners stressed that issue, advocating for more implementation of things like fire breaks, which are essentially empty slashes of land that halt the fire’s progression.

But that would require relying on many private landowners around Oahu to clear away flammable vegetation.

Having animals graze the areas is one way of managing vegetation, but that can be a costly operation, said Clay Trauernicht, an assistant specialist at the University of Hawaii’s department of natural resources and environmental management. 

And more government investment in wildfire mitigation is needed, he added.

“When we think about grazing – as in with other forms of agriculture, food production – to make it competitive in the global market in which we exist, you really need to be thinking about subsidies,” he said.

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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