Politicians have heeded firefighters’ calls in light of the Aug. 8 wildfires, submitting draft bills to establish a fire marshal after the position was disbanded decades ago.

Lawmakers appear galvanized to reinstate a fire marshal’s office after 45 years of not having one, but questions remain over what form it will take and how much it will cost.

Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. without a State Fire Marshal’s Office, an agency that typically oversees and coordinates fire investigation and prevention activities alongside local agencies.

But that could change this legislative session, which opens Wednesday and runs through early May. Lawmakers anticipate six bills being introduced related to reinstating a state fire marshal as well as a multitude of other measures focused on wildfires in general and recovery efforts on Maui following the destructive Aug. 8 blaze.

August 10, 2023, photographs two days after the fire which destroyed Lahaina town. (Courtesy of the DLNR)
A State Fire Marshal’s Office would help oversee and coordinate with local fire departments. (Courtesy: DLNR)

That State Fire Council submitted several proposals to Gov. Josh Green late last year for how to address the risk of wildfire. Those proposals including the potential acquisition of shared aircrafts for firefighting, procuring more firefighting tools for the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the installation of a fire marshal’s office.

The SFC has asked lawmakers to consider reinstating the office in the past, but the Aug. 8 wildfires have underscored the need, according to Hawaii County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd, who chairs the council.

Fully funding and staffing a 44-employee State Fire Marshal’s Office would cost just over $3.5 million, according to a State Fire Council estimate. That office would include investigators, prevention officers, inspectors, administrative staff and fire marshals.

The Big Island’s fire department is one of the island chain’s most experienced departments, when it comes to wildfire. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

It is likely that lawmakers will opt for a “limited model” at first, said Todd, so the marshal’s office would be able to assess the need and its potential scope.

The blueprint for the fire marshal will be up to lawmakers, but according to the SFC, a half-staffed office would cost about $1.95 million and a quarter-staffed office, with 14 staff, would run $1.19 million.

A fire marshal’s mandates and powers vary from state to state but their duties generally include fire investigation and prevention, regulating fire codes and increasing public fire awareness.

Those duties have predominantly fallen on county fire departments since Hawaii disbanded its marshal’s office in 1978, arguing that the counties could fill the role.

The SFC receives just over $100,000 in funding annually and its operations are overseen by two part-time administrators.

Meanwhile, the responsibilities have mounted and the number of wildfires and their intensity has grown, according to Todd, who says having fire chiefs work on the council while fulfilling their everyday duties has become a real stretch.

“Maybe 40 years ago that was possible,” Todd said. “I think we live in a very different world.”

Marshaling The Lawmakers

Sen. Glenn Wakai has introduced Senate Bill 2085, calling for the creation of a State Fire Marshal, and Rep. Linda Ichiyama introduced a companion measure in the House.

“We have to fix the dumb decision back in 1978 to get rid of the fire marshal,” Wakai said.

Senator Glenn Wakai listens to testimony during a Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Sen. Glenn Wakai has introduced five pieces of legislation targeting wildfires for the 2024 Legislative Session. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

There are at least two other bills in the Senate that Waikai said he knows will be introduced as well.

The House’s wildfire-focused bipartisan caucus is expected to introduce another bill to reestablish a marshal’s office by the bill introduction cutoff Friday, according to Ichiyama, who co-chaired the House Wildfire Prevention Working Group, formed after the Aug. 8 wildfires.

Green is expected to put forward his own bill as part of the administration’s legislative package after indicating his support for the initiative in a hearing with the House Finance Committee earlier this year.

The full extent of Green’s bill is expected to be released Monday following his State of the State speech, along with the rest of his legislative package, according to the governor’s office.

Attending To Firefighters’ Needs

Acquiring five shared aircraft was also among the SFC’s proposals to the governor’s office, with a price tag of about $64 million.

The fleet would include one fixed-wing aircraft and four twin-engine helicopters shared between the county and state fire departments, to help provide medical transportation, perform search-and-rescue missions and provide aerial support during wildfires.

“In Hawaii, helicopters made a huge difference in how you fight fires,” Todd said, adding that typically hard-to-reach fires make ground response difficult, especially on Big Island. “A’a lava rock just tears through boots and breaks ankles.”

Lahaina fire - Military helicopter water drops, August 16, 2023, photographs. (Courtesy of the DLNR)
A military helicopter drops water on Maui during a wildfire in August. Fire departments rely heavily on military aircraft during wildfires because they have a larger water-carrying capacity than the fire departments’ helicopters. (Courtesy: DLNR)

The Big Island and Oahu have typically relied on U.S. Army aircraft to support firefighting efforts with water bucket drops, though it is capped at 10 aircraft at any one time, according to the SFC.

The proposal was not set in stone, according to Todd, but the aircraft could be overseen by a state fire marshal or DOFAW.

The SFC’s proposals also include the requests of DOFAW and the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a nonprofit based on the Big Island.

DOFAW last year indicated that it would ask for an eightfold increase in funding for wildfire-related initiatives and equipment, amounting to $24 million. The governor’s proposed budget included $17.4 million of that request.

HWMO had a list of proposals as well, including permanent state funding for its statewide community Firewise program, which has faced a large spike in demand since Aug. 8.

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

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