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Conditions ripe in Hawai‘i for another fire disaster

HONOLULU — Less than a year after a massive wildfire ravaged Lahaina with shocking lethal ferocity, a federal agency is predicting that Hawai‘i over the next few months will face similar conditions that could lead to more wildfires.

In its latest seasonal outlook, the National Interagency Fire Center says the lee sides of the islands will experience “above average significant potential” for wildfires this month through at least August.

The warning comes as the public in Hawai‘i is being asked to prepare their homes and properties for the upcoming fire season.

Honolulu Fire Department Battalion Chief J.C. Bisch told reporters last week that Hawai‘i is expected to see a summer hotter and drier than normal — along with a greater threat of wildfires.

“It’s imperative that each and every one of us take proactive measures to safeguard our homes and protect our families and our communities,” Bisch said.

Less than 5 percent of the country’s landmass was designated as having “above average significant wildfire potential” by the National Interagency Fire Center, a Boise, Idaho, office staffed by nine federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service, that provides wildland fire support and planning to its member agencies.

The National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook is a tool for wildland fire managers, providing an assessment of current weather and landscape conditions and how these will evolve in the next four months.

Other areas of the U.S. facing similar vulnerable conditions in May and beyond include Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida.

For Hawai‘i, El Nino conditions are expected to transition to La Nina during the heart of the dry season, according to the center. During the transition, rainfall is expected to be below normal and to worsen drought conditions.

“This is going to be a very dry season,” Gov. Josh Green said Friday. “We’re not anticipating rain — even like we normally would hope to get.”

Vegetation and grasses will become stressed and more flammable with each passing month, the center’s outlook says.

The forecast notes that vegetation growth occurred on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu as a result of a mid-April rain event, but drying conditions will allow curing to take its toll, especially during July and August.

“La Nina tends to promote periods of enhanced trade winds and should serve as a catalyst for large fire growth,” the outlook says. “Enhancing drought, stressed live fuels and intermittent gusty-dry wind events provides the ingre­dients for above normal significant fire potential across all of the lee-side areas during the heart of the dry season.”

Wildfire measures

Hawai‘i was jarred by the destructive power of the wind-driven Aug. 8, 2023, wildfire that roared into Lahaina, killing 101 people and destroying thousands of structures.

The devastation prompted Hawai‘i lawmakers to make fighting fires and wildfire prevention priorities in its recent legislative session, passing several measures that were sent to the governor for his consideration.

The measures include $10 million for equipment like bulldozers, fire engines and water tanks for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, as well as $1.4 million for the department to hire 22 staff, including a forester, mechanics and heavy-equipment operators to protect against fires.

Lawmakers also approved $7.4 million to manage invasive grasses and other vegetation that fuel fires, restore native plants and work with communities to prevent wildfires.

They also gave the green light to hiring of a state fire marshal to review and assess fire risk and work with county agencies to enforce the state fire code, and signed off on a $1 million appropriation for the University of Hawai‘i to develop a wildfire forecast system with the help of artificial intelligence.

During a news conference on Friday, James Barros, administrator of the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency, said his office is working with the U.S. Fire Administration to bring 80 wildfire sensors to the islands. The beta sensors — to be deployed across the state — are designed to identify spikes in chemical gases and particulates as close to fire ignition as possible, providing 24-hour sensing and alerting capabilities.

DLNR’s fire protection forester, Michael Walker, said new state funding will give his crews the ability to better manage a 200-mile network of firebreaks and even allow for expansion. In addition, officials plan to expand a network of fire weather stations to 62 from 22 stations.

“These stations will provide substantial amounts of fire weather data that are critical for forecasting fire events,” he said.

Experts say both the frequency and size of wildfires have steadily grown in recent decades as changing weather patterns and invading fire-prone, non-native grasses and shrubs have put Hawaii’s forests, natural areas and communities at greater risk of fire.

The risk of wildfire in Hawai‘i — now on par with notorious fire-prone Western states like California — is greater than 92 percent of states in the U.S., according to a U.S. Forest Service website called wildfirerisk.org.

Awareness

In an interview, Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization, said awareness about wildfire prevention in Hawaii has never been higher following August’s wildfires.

Firewise, the federal program that HWMO helps oversee in Hawai‘i, saw 16 communities sign up in the first 13 years of the organization’s oversight. In the first quarter of this year, 21 more communities have applied to join, and 22 more have shown interest.

Pickett said that before Lahaina most government agencies weren’t doing a lot about wildfire prevention. “Now it’s at the top of the priority list,” she said.

Local engagement, in fact, is higher than ever across the state, she said. A recent HWMO fire prevention workshop saw huge attendance, she said, with representatives from 130 large landowners.

The risk of wildfire is top of mind for some vulnerable communities. In Waimea, the topic of the community association’s recent meeting was emergency preparedness and lessons learned from the August wildfires and other emergencies. There was a full house at the New Community Center.

In Kihei, where the leeward landscape is similar to Lahaina, the Kihei Community Association has made fire prevention one of its top priorities and is working to establish a Fire Prevention Task force for South Maui to facilitate efforts to stop Kihei from becoming the next Lahaina.

Pickett is encouraged by the growing interest and grateful for the attention state lawmakers offered to the issue this year.

“We’ve made clear progress in wildfire prevention,” she said, “but it’s clear we still have a long way to go.”

Pickett said there were still some lawmakers, judging by their questioning during bill hearings, who still don’t get the importance of prevention and mitigation. As important as it is, firefighting is not the solution, she said, but rather the last line of defense.

In the old days you could rely on the fire crews to extinguish a brush fire before much damage was done, she said. Now, under some extreme conditions, that isn’t a certainty anymore.

Pickett said there’s still a lot of education needed to create a culture of mitigation, risk reduction and preparedness.
Source: The Garden Island

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