Purchasing new firefighting vehicles and drastically reducing fuel for fires reduction would be priorities.

The state Division of Forestry and Wildlife is preparing to ask lawmakers for more than $24 million to help battle wildfires in the islands after years of being chronically under-resourced, according to draft budget documents obtained by Civil Beat.

The agency will use that money to purchase everything from fire tankers and dozers to hiring staff and conducting community fire prevention, DOFAW documents show.

The division, which falls under the Department of Land and Natural Resources, has received little funding to see out its mandate while the risk of wildfire increased exponentially across Hawaii. Now in the wake of the blazes that gripped Hawaii on Aug. 8, including the conflagration that razed most of Lahaina and killed at least 97 people, the division has lawmakers’ attention.

A picture of a Vietnam-era Gama Goat, a small truck-like vehicle, that are good for off-road use but difficult to maintain. The gama-goat is obviously old.
14 new vehicles would be purchased by DLNR to replace equipment like these Vietnam War era Gama Goats, that are both difficult to maintain and unable to be driven on roads. (Courtesy: DLNR)

The state House formed six working groups to address the fallout from the Maui fires and the issue of wildfires statewide.

Most of those groups have specific areas to look at, though the wildfire prevention working group has perhaps the widest remit, according to co-chair Rep. Darius Kila.

“We can go 100 different ways,” he said. “But it’s 100 different opportunities to keep communities, like the Leeward communities, safe.”

The $24 million is aimed at two key areas: fuels reduction and equipment for firefighting. The requests are “still under internal review,” according to DLNR.

That figure represents an almost eight-fold increase for a division whose funding has left them unable to fully see out its fire mandate.

Gov. Josh Green has acknowledged that DNLR has been underfunded for decades. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Gov. Josh Green acknowledged the agency’s lacking funds at a press conference earlier this month, when he said the Legislature would “focus almost exclusively on new ways to deal with fires.”

DLNR’s budget would be reconsidered, among a litany of wildfire considerations Green listed.

“DLNR has been underfunded for decades,” Green said. “I think they receive like about 2% of the budget — which is just way too little — and you could see what happens.”

DOFAW is the first responder for fires on 1 million acres in Hawaii — 25% of the state’s landmass — but has frequently dipped into disaster funds or borrowed money from other divisions of DLNR to foot the cost of fighting fires across the state.

The division intends to ask for a one-off $12 million slice for at least 14 new vehicles in the 2025 financial year, which starts July 1, including dozers, a fire tanker, an excavator and brush trucks, all designed to help mitigate the risk of wildfire to Hawaii’s communities.

That funding would also include $2.4 million towards placing water tanks across the state.

It will ask for an additional annual stipend of $12.2 million for community wildfire mitigation, starting in fiscal 2025, money it says it will use to hire more staff, strengthen water infrastructure, help communities become more resilient to fire and reduce fire fuels across Hawaii.

More staff, additional statewide water infrastructure and fire fuel reduction efforts would be funded by an additional annual stipend to DOFAW. (Courtesy: DLNR)

The funding requests represent just two ways to address the wildfire issue, one that is influenced by a wide range of factors, from climate change to building codes.

But as much as wildfires have been highlighted recently, finances still need to be balanced and lawmakers will have to make some hard decisions, Kila says.

The Legislature’s budget for fiscal year 2025 is projected at $18.2 billion, $800 million less than this year’s budget.

“We are going to have to go down to the nitty-gritty of every single thing, so we still keep services for folks but also acknowledge the trauma that has come out of the wildfire,” Kila said.

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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