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City officials outline plans to avert disaster on O‘ahu

In the wake of the deadly Aug. 8 Maui wildfires, the City and County of Honolulu says it’s begun efforts to better respond to future wildfire threats on O‘ahu.

Those efforts include better communication between the Honolulu Fire Department and other city and state agencies, and getting the public on board with fire mitigation efforts, such as clearing weeds away from homes, businesses and neighborhoods prone to wildfires.

The city’s effort also means that when a wildfire or similar event does occur, Honolulu could implement plans to evacuate affected neighborhoods via alternate routes.

All of these efforts to improve disaster response start with communication, the city says.

During an informational briefing at the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, HFD Assistant Fire Chief Craig Uchimura said incident information would ultimately be given to the city Department of Emergency Management “to start instituting evacuations and notifications,” if deemed necessary.

“So we start to think about that earlier on,” he said at the May 2 meeting. “We’ve always done it, but it’s always kind of been by the wayside, because we’re focused on extinguishing the fire.”

He added that since Lahaina, as well as the Mililani Mauka fire that ignited in the mountainous terrain above that community last fall and eventually scorched over 1,600 acres, “we have more of a designation area.”

“Depending on the situation, the weather conditions and what the fire is doing, we’re trying to have the company commander — the incident commanders on scene — figure out these demarcation lines,” Uchimura said. “If the fire gets to this area then we’re going to consider evacuating this portion of the neighborhood, or at least alerting the entire neighborhood.”

“And if we have to do evacuations, we’re going to try to figure out what portions are going to need to be evacuated, so we don’t get a flood of residents out of a certain area,” he said.

But formal evacuation plans or drills appear unlikely, according to Emergency Management Director Hiro Toiya.

“As much as we’d like to have it pre-scripted for communities it’s really not practical for us to do that because of the dynamic situations that the firefighters face,” Toiya told the committee. “We don’t know which neighborhoods would need to be evacuated, what the wind direction is going to be, what roads might already be impacted.”

He added that, “we really rely on our first responders to have awareness of their community, knowledge of their community and also understanding of the incident in the moment and what’s being impacted, and for us to communicate that clearly amongst each other, to the emergency operations center and to the public.”

The logistics of evacuations are also of concern.

According to Toiya, “over 60 percent of the communities in our state are built with one way in and one way out,” usually one road or highway serving various populated communities.

“Just think of every valley and ridge community; it’s one way in and one way out essentially,” he said. “So, where we can, we are seeking alternative ingress-­egress routes.”

He noted potential emergency evacuation routes could include areas in the Waianae Range ­­— like Kolekole Pass, which crosses military-owned land at Schofield Barracks ­­— as well as a little-known, nonpublic dirt road now used by contractor Nan Inc., on the hillside community of Makakilo.

“But those are going to be few and far between,” said Toiya of alternate routes. “So that means our mitigation measures have to be done much better.”

And the city will need to improve how it communicates to the public via radio, television and wireless emergency alerts or disaster sirens, he said, adding it’s not always about the work of government agencies.

“But also to present to the community, what can individuals do to better prepare for emergencies,” he said.

He noted that included “preparing yourself, understanding your neighborhood and having a go bag” ­­— a collection of items that can be taken on-the-go, if the need to leave in a hurry arises.

He added the city’s plan to avert a Lahaina-like disaster includes awareness of the changing climate.

“Perhaps we’re going to have longer periods of drought in the future, we’ll have stronger wind days, or maybe there’ll be red flag warning days going into the future,” he said.

“We don’t know what the future is going to bring, but we need to do everything we can to increase our response capabilities so that when an emergency happens we have clearer processes in place.”

At the meeting, Council member Val Okimoto asked about HFD’s staffing and firefighting equipment.

“Right now our vacancies are very low, so our staffing is very good,” Uchimura replied.

HFD, in conjunction with the National Weather Service, also tracks weather conditions — including high wind — and communicates that data to personnel during fires, he said.

“Should they go to a wildland fire they may have to call for more resources right off the bat,” he added. “The thing about the high winds, over a certain wind speed, our helicopter is grounded so we don’t have that (resource).”

During public testimony, Diamond Head-Kapahulu-­­St. Louis Heights Neighborhood Board member Michelle Matson said more needed to be done to prevent a large-scale wildfire from occurring at O‘ahu’s prime landmark.

“Diamond Head is a ‘National Natural Landmark’ and a state historic landmark, globally renowned as a symbol of Hawaii, yet the slopes of Diamond Head have been allowed to be overrun and dominated by transient encampments,” she said.

President of the nonprofit Diamond Head State Monument Foundation, Matson noted “from time to time, the city and state conduct $40,000 periodic ‘house-cleaning services’ for these encampments as the inhabitants sit along the roadway with their belongings.”

But she said the homeless “immediately return to cut kiawe tree limbs and build dangerous open campfires on the slopes, despite posted no-trespassing signs.”

According to reports given to her neighborhood board, Matson said HFD responded “to four wildfires on Diamond Head between February and April” of this year.

“Ultimately, and for obvious reasons, the high-risk encampments must be safely relocated — that is prevention,” she said, adding “the conservation district’s no-trespassing signs must be enforced for fire prevention, safety and protection of the surrounding established communities, the surrounding public park areas, and Waikiki, where these fires will definitely end up.”
Source: The Garden Island

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