Photo Credit: More and more communities across the Hawaiian Islands are working to reduce the risk of wildfire. This background image is of a coastal wildfire in Hawaii; the thumbnail image is a newly formed Firewise committee. Photos by Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization

(HWMO) is a non-profit based on Hawaii Island (or “the Big Island”). In 2015, we began working with several communities statewide on grassroots-level community wildfire protection efforts, primarily through Firewise’s communities recognition program. Only a few years later, we’re happy to say that our communities are seeing some great success!

Wildfire in Hawaii?

Some might be surprised to hear that Hawaii has wildfire challenges. However, the size and frequency of wildfires in Hawaii have grown significantly in recent decades. Many years, wildfires often burn a similar percentage of lands in Hawaii as they do in the western United States. Because the Hawaiian Islands are so steep, its soils repel water and the weather often changes daily, fire’s environmental impacts can be immediate. For instance, land that burns upslope one day can experience a major rainfall event and erosion the next. This runoff and debris floods coastal areas, smothers coral reefs and impacts the tourism and fishery economies. Nevertheless, Hawaii’s residents don’t often make the connection between fire, drinking water availability and coastal water quality issues.

Sediment-laden runoff streaming into the Pacific Ocean

Post-wildfire erosion headed into the Pacific. Credit: Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization

We face a similar disconnect when discussing wildfire risk and the need to reduce fuels, particularly because our grasses hydrate so quickly. People often think that a day’s worth of rain eliminates wildfire risk, which is no surprise, as a single rainy day can turn our grasslands from brown to green. It is therefore easy to forget about wildfire risk as soon as it rains. You can read more about Hawaii’s fire ecology, our ReadySetGo! efforts, and our planning activities in my blog from last September.

Helping Communities Embark on the FAC Journey

HWMO, with a grant from USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region (and additional discretionary funds from State Farm) has used the ReadySetGo! and Firewise frameworks as launching points to engage our communities in fire adaptation efforts. When working with a new area, we typically hold ReadySetGo! wildfire preparedness workshops first, to spark interest. Once a few community members are willing to form a Firewise committee, we then assist them with the Community Hazard Assessment process, one of the major requirements for a community to receive Firewise certification.

HWMO also tailors community-specific wildfire prevention and protection recommendations. We have two categories of recommendations: stopgap (or short-term) protection activities and long-term protection measures. For example, one-time grazing in an invasive grassland area is a stopgap activity, but creating an evergreen corridor and using native plants along the boundary (e.g., a fuels conversion) would be a long-term measure.

To inspire increased long-term thinking, we stress three concepts in our recommendations:

  1. Proactive practices are more fruitful than reactive ones;
  2. Partially addressed, ad hoc or incomplete mitigation activities are much less effective than fully implemented ones; and
  3. Collaborative projects that engage all parties living or working in the area are more successful than isolated projects that don’t involve stakeholders.

Goats, Guides and Other Endeavors

These recommendations have already encouraged Firewise committees to start thinking outside of the box. For example, two years ago, Waikoloa Village received a fuels reduction grant from the USDA Forest Service. The village used the funds to hire a goat-grazing contractor to reduce flammable vegetation on vacant lots. As phase two of the project, the community will be installing permanent fence posts to allow for more regular grazing. Eventually, they may transform these lots into a multi-use area where goats continue to graze and the community also grows citrus trees.

A herd of goats eating vegetation in front of a home

Goats doing their part to create defensible space in Waikoloa Village. Credit: Chris Wilcox, Big Island Goat Dozers

These communities are also engaging residents through outreach. A few months ago, the Launiupoko Firewise committee sent over 300 copies of ReadySetGo! Wildland Fire Action Guides to residents. This spring, they will be hiring a contractor to remove flammable vegetation along an established bike path. Kahikinui, a small homestead in one of the most remote areas on Maui, worked tirelessly last year to engage neighboring large landowners and various agencies in their Firewise efforts. Their persistence and creativity led to a collaborative fuels mitigation project that received funding from the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and a local wind farm.

In total, HWMO has helped eight additional communities become Firewise since 2015: Kanehoa, Waialea, Puako, Kailapa and Waikoloa (on Hawaii Island), and Waiohuli, Kahikinui and Launiupoko (on Maui).

A group of people clearing vegetation from a neighbor's front yard; FAC in Hawaii in action

A fuels reduction workday in action. Credit: Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization

We’re Learning, Too

The communities that HWMO is working with have helped us make a shift as well. Previously, we viewed the concept of “cultural change” as a daunting task. Now, we see that cultural change is both possible and exciting. We thank each community participating in this effort, as well as all of our partners who are helping guide the way. Mahalo nui loa.

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