Proponents identified the post-fire period as a perfect opportunity to reset local food production.

Imposing taxes on owners who leave land fallow is one of 42 recommendations catalogued by the interim House working group charged with finding ways to prevent wildfires across Hawaii.

Fallow lands, and the largely uncontrolled spread of fire-resistant grasses were identified as key factors behind the Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui.

The House Wildfire Prevention Working Group’s first draft report, followed six weeks of investigating the factors fueling Hawaii’s propensity to wildfire.

There was little opposition to the group’s recommendations at a public hearing on Friday, one of six convened by Hawaii’s House of Representatives to investigate Hawaii’s disaster readiness and inform policy-making in the coming legislative session.

A Honolulu Fire Department helicopter flies over a large vegetation fire in the Mililani Mauka-Launani Valley area iMonday, Oct. 30, 2023, as seen from Inana Street in Mililani. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Ensuring better funding for county and state firefighting is part of the House Wildfire Prevention Working Group’s suite of recommendations. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The wildfire prevention group’s recommendations centered on: reducing fire ignitions, protecting communities, increasing public awareness and engagement, fighting wildfires, increasing research, bolstering capacity for post-fire response and lessening statewide fire fuels loads.

The working group recommended that cross-boundary partnerships be created to create a more holistic approach to land management. It also recommended disincentivizing land banking “through increased taxation of lands that are not being used for public purposes or managed through an appropriate conservation plan.”

Local food production and its role in disaster mitigation and response should also be a central theme in the group’s final report too, according to Micah Munekata, government affairs director for Ulupono Initiative.

“We understand that land management can be expensive and a long term commitment,” Munekata told lawmakers. “Why not commit to something that we’ve been talking about for years: local food production?”

The state should also be actively looking for ways to leverage the increasingly large pot of federal funding for wildfire prevention, Munekata said.

Lessening statewide fire fuel loads is one of the areas of focus of the House working group. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The working group’s draft report also noted the need for “an inventory of best practices for planning, zoning, development review, and code enforcement” to reduce the hazards of fire statewide.

“There’s important things we can do to improve and update our codes and improving capacity to enforce codes,” Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization co-executive director Elizabeth Pickett said in an interview.

Currently without a state fire marshal, the lion’s share of fire code development, implementation and enforcement is left to county fire departments with minimal staff, which means much of the wildfire-related codes are lacking.

Compelling and empowering county departments to strengthen their codes to account for the risk of wildfire is a key step that state lawmakers could take, Pickett said.

“We can’t just have codes. We have to have enforcement,” Pickett said.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

Pickett said the draft represented a suite of recommendations that could be achieved in the near future and over the coming years.

“There’s been talk, now there’s learning and now it’s time to get things to start happening,” Pickett said.

Not every recommendation will result in draft legislation, considering there is an element of crossover between them, according to working group co-chair Rep. Linda Ichiyama.

“Once we have the final report we will really sift through,” Ichiyama said in an interview. “Some of them may not require legislation.”

Instead, implementing some of the recommendation may simply require coordination with the counties or various state institutions.

The report will be finalized and submitted to House leadership on Dec. 15.

Ichiyama said at that point the House will deliberate on what recommendations could become draft legislation next year.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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

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