House working groups have dozens of recommendations that deal with prevention of fires as well as better ways to deal with problems arising after a major fire.

The Aug. 8 Maui fires have created “one of the largest public policy challenges that Hawaii has ever faced,” state lawmakers said Wednesday in laying out details in six preliminary reports aimed at providing a roadmap for the 2024 Legislature to follow in addressing shortcomings in the state’s wildfire prevention and management efforts.

“We are at a critical decision point. Bold action is required to address the key drivers of catastrophic fires, significantly increase the pace and scale of land management, and improve the resilience of our most vulnerable communities,” according to the Wildfire Prevention Working Group.

The six House committees have been working since early September in separate public policy areas to come up with findings and recommendations. The working groups were organized around fire prevention, environmental remediation, food, water and other supplies, jobs and business, schools and shelters.

Some of the committees conducted their own research, including surveys of residents and interviews with policymakers. Others relied on government data, reports and news accounts to come up with proposals.

The reports all speak to the need to bolster and significantly improve a number of agencies and practices, ranging from housing and food production to methods to distribute supplies during emergencies to better monitoring of contamination from disasters. All would appear to require substantial investment by the state and local governments, but only one report provides estimated cost to carry out its recommendations.

The report on environmental remediation, for instance, calls for $1.8 million to a University of Hawaii Manoa interdisciplinary team to characterize thousands of organic compounds including polychlorinated biphenyls and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Other recommendations seem common sense, such as having the state set aside funding to ensure that food banks have adequate storage capacity, or the development of child care services in West Maui in order to allow workers to return to work.

One recommends statewide limits on fireworks and beefed up enforcement of laws regulating the importing, sale and use of fireworks.

Some reports go into historical detail, however, and appear to recognize the scope of Hawaii law that applies to land and water. In one instance a report proposes reconceptualizing how those public trust resources can best be utilized.

“The destruction wrought by the fires provides an opportunity for re-development more in line with existing knowledge that considers the need for resilience measures, climate adaptation, and environmental protection,” according to the environmental remediation report. “Restoring the wetland area may be one of these opportunities. … They provide habitat for waterbirds and wetland birds, brackish water fish and invertebrates, and wetland plants that are native to estuarine spaces.” 

The reports as a whole also build on many existing recommendations, including regarding the state’s most important industry: “Initiatives should promote responsible, respectful, and compassionate tourism. Additional resources are encouraged for the Hawaii Tourism Authority to continue its Malama Maui campaign and implementation of the Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan.”

The working groups state obvious realities about the challenges that Hawaii already faced long before the fires. Noting that the fire damaged 3,631 properties, 60% of which were rental housing, one of the reports says, “The loss of these residential units comes on top of an existing housing crisis in Hawaii, as housing prices in the state are the highest in the nation, at 2.7 times the national average.”

That’s from the report on shelter and it recommends reducing regulatory barriers for the development of additional dwelling units and multifamily housing. That is something Gov. Josh Green pushed for in his emergency proclamation on housing before the fires became the single most pressing emergency.

Public health and safety remain a paramount concern.

In the report from the schools working group, representatives highlighted families’ reservations around returning to Lahaina schools, including their concerns around campuses’ air quality and available evacuation routes.

The report recommended that the Department of Education make schools’ emergency action plans more accessible to lawmakers and the public, while also working with the Department of Transportation to ensure all schools have necessary evacuation routes.

And the report advised the DOE to take more preventative measures moving forward, such as building more fire-resilient schools equipped with automatic sprinklers, fire alarms and fire barriers.

As construction and demolition begins in Lahaina, the report said, the DOE and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should protect schools as much as possible by creating barriers around the ash removal sites and following air patterns to inform the location of the clean-up work.

Another common theme through all six reports is the need to work in unity to craft short- and long-term solutions.

“The Lahaina wildfires in August 2023 were a devastating event that left an indelible mark on Hawaii, claiming numerous lives and destroying entire communities,” the jobs and business draft report says. “In its aftermath, the need for coordinated and effective legislative action has become increasingly urgent.”

Whatever comes out of the final House report will need to be considered by the full House as well as the state Senate, where Senate leaders say they are doing their own review in response to the fires. The Green administration will have a final say on all legislation and appropriations.

The six working groups involve all 51 members of the House including minority Republicans.

Asked for his general reaction to the work of his membership, House Speaker Scott Saiki said the draft reports reflect “many, many hours of research and conversations with the public, providers and experts. They provide important insight into reforms that need to be made on a statewide level to protect people from another disaster.”

The House has scheduled public hearings beginning Wednesday and running through Nov. 21 to get feedback on a lengthy list of recommendations.

The goal, Saiki said, is to get public feedback so a final report can be completed by Dec. 15.

Policy and appropriation recommendations will then be taken up in the 2024 legislative session that begins Jan. 17.

Civil Beat reporter Megan Tagami contributed to this report.

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

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