Photo Credit: On August 29, 2016, a group of community members from Kahikinui hosted over 30 people from various organizations including the local Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Project for sharing of expertise about recent large fires in the area and what collaborative projects to move forward on. The field tour, organized by the Pacific Fire Exchange and its partners, qualified as Kahikinui’s Firewise Event for 2016. Photo by HWMO
Written By: Pablo Beimler, Community Outreach Coordinator, Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization
Living in the most remote island chain in the world with over 2,500 miles of Pacific Ocean separating us from the continental U.S. (a.k.a. “the mainland”), it is only fitting that Hawai‘i has a unique set of traits and challenges that can sometimes make one feel isolated from the rest of the world. However, the era of modern networking capabilities is helping shed light on the commonalities we share, while still honoring the differences that make us unique.
Unlike much of the mainland, Hawai‘i’s native ecosystems are NOT fire adapted. In many cases, once an area burns, it is replaced by fire-prone exotics, forever changing the landscape. Post-fire rain events cause erosion that damages nearshore resources (e.g., fishponds, coral reefs and fisheries), impacting the state’s main economic base. Hawai‘i has extensive non-native dryland ecosystems (and smaller pockets of native dryland ecosystems) on the leeward sides of all the main islands that are particularly susceptible to fire. And we have a big arson problem.
The typical home in Hawai‘i is post-and-pier, with a metal roof to cap it off. Landscaping can range from use of koa trees and native understory plants to food-scapes of ulu and banana trees to dense thickets of ti and bamboo.
The mosaic of characteristics that make Hawaiʻi so unique can also make it that much more challenging. Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO), a 501(c)(3) non-profit that serves as the hub of the collaborative wildfire efforts of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and communities across Hawaiʻi, has worked to figure out ways to apply national-level wildfire prevention and mitigation programs to the local level.
The basic principles of fire are universal — fire is always hungry for fuel, oxygen and heat and behaves according to the layout of the land and the sometimes vicious changes in weather conditions. Like anywhere else in the world, fire can be tamed by managing fuels. Homes can be spared by preventing ember ignitions. Planning can bring all the right stakeholders to the table and ensure resources and information are shared and projects implemented effectively. The myriad of programs that have been developed nationally offer incredible tools for wildfire problem-solving in the WUI. HWMO has incorporated national programs such as Firewise, Ready, Set, Go! and the Cohesive Strategy into its programming. We have molded each program to fit the local characteristics of Hawaiʻi, and have found this to be an effective way to reach large and engaged audiences.
Starting in 2013, HWMO collaborated with the IAFC Ready, Set, Go! program to produce a Hawaii-version of the Wildland Fire Action Guide. IAFC graciously printed 10,000 copies for HWMO and county fire departments to distribute. Replacing photos and references to conifer forests, shake roof homes, and other mainland- WUI features, HWMO integrated Hawai’i-specific photos and information and added an introductory section about wildfire in Hawai’i’. Since incorporating the new guide into our fire preparedness workshops and outreach booths, we’ve noticed a spike in interest from residents and even visitors about the Ready, Set, Go! program. Whether learning how to prevent embers from collecting under the lanai (patio) or browsing the visual list of recommended Firewise native plants, residents have taken the RSG! guides into their own hands. Launiupoko Firewise Committee in West Mauʻi plans to send more than 350 guides to residents as their first ever Firewise event.
HWMO is currently working with at least 10 communities across the state to assist them in becoming nationally recognized Firewise communities. It’s a challenge we decided to undertake with our partners after numerous people expressed interest in the program during a series of CWPP meetings we held across the state over the past couple of years. Previous to the current effort, Kohala-By-the-Sea was the first and only Firewise Community in the state and has successfully maintained their status for over a decade. With this reinvigorated, collaborative effort toward simultaneous certifications of various communities, mostly on the Big Island and Mauʻi, we are aiming to have 10 new Firewise communities by the end of the year. Partnerships with emergency response agencies and various community organizations are instrumental in accomplishing this task. HWMO has developed a system with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife to provide quarterly updates about each community’s progress. We have roped in watershed partnerships such as West Mauʻi Mountains Watershed Partnership and Leeward Haleakalā Watershed Restoration Partnership. With their support and expertise, we are able to connect residents to these extensive networks and ensure the community efforts align with larger landscape-level goals of environmental restoration. When it comes to wildfire, all key players should be at the table – in other words, the concept of creating fire adapted communities.
As another way of molding national efforts to our programming, HWMO has integrated the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy into Community Wildfire Protection Plan we are writing. As of this summer, with immense help from our partners, we will have five new CWPPs (and an update for Kauaʻi) implemented for the state: North Kona, Upcountry Mauʻi, South Mauʻi, Molokaʻi and West Oʻahu. We have organized the input collected from the various CWPP meetings according to the Cohesive Strategy’s three strategies: Resilient Landscapes, Fire Adapted Communities, and Safe & Effective Wildfire Response. By organizing public input this way, we are able to align with national priorities and funding opportunities.
With all of the national program integration we have been working on, it’s safe to say we are helping do our part to connect Hawaiʻi to a larger pool of ideas and tested strategies that provide a rich dimension to our work here. But we couldn’t say aloha just yet without mentioning one of our latest innovations based on the successes (and challenges) associated with Smokey Bear. We present to you Kaleo the Pueo (the pueo is an owl that is native to Hawai‘i), Hawai‘i’s new wildfire mascot, designed by a local artist here on the Big Island. Kaleo has already been a major hit with the keiki (kids). With a feathery shaka hand gesture, his lessons about the mauka-to-makai (mountain-to-sea) wildfire issues we face and ways to create a more sustainable WUI environment will hopefully continue to take flight and perhaps influence youth outreach programs outside of Hawaiʻi, completing the (fire) cycle of information sharing.
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