About the Authors

James McCallen

James McCallen is a public health professional passionate about the intersection between climate change and human health.

Omar Bird

Omar T. Bird is a critical public social scientist, educator and podcaster. He is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Hawaii Manoa with a focus on medical sociology and social inequality. Bird has also worked in state government and private consulting.

Darragh O’Carroll

Darragh O’Carroll, M.D., Is a board-certified emergency physician, Omidyar Fellow, medical officer for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, consultant for the Netflix docuseries "Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak," co-founder of the 501(c)(3) non-profit Every1ne Hawaii, regular COVID-19 on-air live CNN contributor, climate change advocate, and writer.

Daintry Bartoldus

Daintry Bartoldus is the executive administrator of Hawaii State Council on Developmental Disabilities, an agency which provides advocacy, capacity building, and systems change activities on behalf of persons with developmental disabilities.

A single statewide system in Hawaii should deliver clear, consistent warnings with specific directions.

For nearly a week in early November, Oahu residents watched anxiously as a Mililani wildfire burned on the slopes of the Koolau range, sending smoke and ash into the air.

On Nov. 5, our mobile phones pinged with a “Red Flag Fire Weather Warning” from the National Weather Service and the City and County of Honolulu. The warning came with guidelines to reduce the risk of wildfires: avoid outdoor burning, don’t toss cigarette butts outside, and remove dry brush from nearby structures.

As health professionals and scientists, we were left wondering: Is the current red flag warning adequate? Does it provide clear instructions on what we should be doing now to stay safe?

Numerous agencies in Hawaii provide alerts and statements when wildfires flare up. Local fire departments and the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization have information on keeping our homes safe and creating an evacuation plan.

The City and County of Honolulu’s alert directs any air quality inquiries to the state Department of Health’s Clean Air Branch. On Nov. 5, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency issued a statement saying it was coordinating additional military fire-suppression aircraft to assist the city.

Still, it was unclear to us what we should do for our health and safety if there was an actual fire in progress. Will this smoke cause an asthma attack? Will a face mask help? How do we transport Grandma’s insulin?

When and where do we evacuate? Should we leave by car if flames are approaching our one-way-in-and-out neighborhood?

We would like to see a single statewide warning system that delivers clear, consistent warnings with specific directions, so people know what they need to do to stay healthy and safe.

The Australian Warning System features standardized hazard warning icons and colors, with warnings supported by clear action statements. (Screenshot/2024)

Australia — a country subject to similar disasters as Hawaii, such as fires, floods and hurricanes — is a working model. The Australian Warning System (AWS) features nationally standardized hazard warning icons with three color stages supported by clear action statements, consistent for every type of natural disaster:

  • Yellow indicates “Advice,” meaning there is an active fire or flood, but no immediate threat to health or homes. People are advised to monitor weather conditions, stay informed, or avoid smoke and fire areas.
  • Orange indicates “Watch and Act,” alerting people to prepare to evacuate, watch out for fire embers, and stay away from damaged buildings.
  • Red indicates an “Emergency Warning,” with clear instructions on where and when to evacuate.

At each stage, people know exactly what to do in order to keep themselves and their families safe without hesitation, no matter the type of disaster. We envision a similar system in Hawaii, with detailed instructions at each stage about smoke, ash, embers, shelter, and evacuation.

The risk of wildfires and other amplified natural disasters has increased, due in part to climate change. In Hawaii, temperatures have risen, rainfall has decreased, and invasive grasses have proliferated. The average changes in these environmental conditions have created drier landscapes at higher risk for burning.

No matter the ignition source — arson, a tossed cigarette, a spark from a car, or a downed power line in high winds — the recent wildfires across Hawaii are a wake-up call to a changing global climate, made worse by a legacy of colonial land-use extraction and the loss of traditional Native Hawaiian environmental stewardship.

These changes have harmed not only the health of the land but the health of the people. Further, we know that disasters do not impact everyone equally: Native Hawaiian communities, the elderly, low-to-moderate-income families, and people with disabilities are more vulnerable to the health effects from fires, along with other climate disasters such as floods, heat waves, and hurricanes.

Our current emergency alert systems are outdated.

How do we ensure added protections are available for our communities most at-risk?

We are in a new climate era. Our current emergency alert systems are outdated. We may know what to do during a tsunami warning, but wildfires are different.

We have learned the hard way that wildfires threaten Hawaii in ways never considered before. They can strike schools when children are learning, homes when people are sleeping, or hospitals that are supposed to be places of healing.

We would like our leaders to embrace the complexity of climate change and develop a clear warning system that prepares everyone, no matter the type of disaster, so that we immediately know what to do when a crisis strikes, so we can stay safe from wildfires, and stay healthy through all the emerging impacts of climate change.

Editor’s note: This Community Voice was written by the members of the Hawaii Climate Change and Health Working Group. United by the values of equity, justice, and Aloha, the group collaborates across disciplines and communities to strengthen Hawaii’s public health resiliency in response to our changing climate. Using a data-driven approach, their mission is to research and communicate the human health impacts of climate change and to advocate for policy solutions that prioritize Hawaii’s most at-risk community members.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.


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About the Authors

James McCallen

James McCallen is a public health professional passionate about the intersection between climate change and human health.

Omar Bird

Omar T. Bird is a critical public social scientist, educator and podcaster. He is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Hawaii Manoa with a focus on medical sociology and social inequality. Bird has also worked in state government and private consulting.

Darragh O’Carroll

Darragh O’Carroll, M.D., Is a board-certified emergency physician, Omidyar Fellow, medical officer for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, consultant for the Netflix docuseries "Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak," co-founder of the 501(c)(3) non-profit Every1ne Hawaii, regular COVID-19 on-air live CNN contributor, climate change advocate, and writer.

Daintry Bartoldus

Daintry Bartoldus is the executive administrator of Hawaii State Council on Developmental Disabilities, an agency which provides advocacy, capacity building, and systems change activities on behalf of persons with developmental disabilities.


Latest Comments (0)

Thank you to the authors for generating and sharing visionary and realistic possibilities. Your vast experience and background makes this article more than an opinion. This qualifies as thoughtful and credible research with real time application. This is "good" news. Fact finding is helpful. An application's to prevent future chaos is inspiring. Good to know Australia has already invented and tested the concept. Thank you for contributing your unwavering passion, depth of experience and knowledge with the rest of us. Thank you to Civil Beat for discerning and disseminating quality ideas. Your work is illuminating.

Anuhea808 · 2 weeks ago

We need to stop depending on big daddy government to take care of us. It’s high time we take responsibility for our own communities the way Kanaka did before they were colonized. How did it work out for the people of Lahaina if they were waiting around for directions from the "authorities "? They didn’t even have internet or cell service to receive alerts. The climate has been changing throughout eternity. A much more valid reason we have an elevated level of disasters is how much of our Aina is "managed" by the state.

LibertyAbides · 2 weeks ago

This is a great idea and it should be fairly easy to implement. Another thing I like is that rather than try to reinvent the wheel it makes use of the experience of another country, Australia. Other countries offer a whole raft of natural experiments in all sorts of things, from governance to property rights. We would all be better off if we took more advantage of what they can teach us.

susanasus · 2 weeks ago

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