Editors’ Note: Elizabeth Pickett is the co-Executive Director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO) based in Kamuela, Hawaii. HWMO’s vision is for the people and places of Hawaii and the Pacific to be wildfire-safe and wildfire-ready through prevention, mitigation, post-fire recovery and collaboration. Here Elizabeth pays tribute to two of her colleagues, her mentors who paved the path for Hawaii’s wildfire adaptation work. Their legacy of leadership and collaboration, as well as and their infectious personalities have served as models for what it means to accomplish goals and cultivate relationships and now Elizabeth and her contemporaries work to honor that and carry it forward. The lessons taught by Wayne and Miles apply to all of us working in fire and well beyond into our lives.
If you worked with any fire managers in Hawaii in the last few decades you likely knew Miles Nakahara or Wayne Ching. If you didn’t, read on. For some of us doing wildfire mitigation, they are wildland fire legends in Hawaii. Our giants. They laid the foundation for so much of what is going right and about how we address fire in our state.
We are standing on their shoulders in the fire work we do today.
In 2020, among all the other changes that came our collective way, we found ourselves saying a hui hou (until next time) to them both. They passed away within weeks of each other. Close friends for decades, they both retired from leadership roles at Hawaii State Division of Forestry and Wildlife and were members of countless related efforts. They mentored many of us who came under their wings, and held long and rich friendships with colleagues across the state and around the country.
Two friends, two careers, immeasurable impact
Wayne and Miles, in different yet compatible ways, instilled a culture of collaboration, friendship, strategy and service to wildland firefighting and mitigation in Hawaii. They transferred to many of us their determination to protect Hawaii’s people and places, not to mention an immense amount of technical expertise.
They did this through their lived examples and their on-the-ground instruction. However, one of their most lasting legacies was their building of infrastructure and mechanisms that would ensure that those who followed would be able to succeed. This included multi-agency wildfire coordinating groups across the state, connections between Hawaii and national efforts and the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit they helped to found and support in order to fill in agency capacity gaps and coordinate multi-partner projects.
These efforts were all organized to work hand-in-hand, to get the job done by leveraging the power of multiple stakeholders working together, and to think and work outside the box when that’s what was needed.
Wayne and Miles were dedicated agency professionals, but they also knew it would take a multi-modal, all-hands-on-deck approach to overcome the wildfire challenges faced in Hawaii. These include having the nation’s highest number of threatened and endangered species that need protection, invasive fire-loving grasses that are rapidly replacing forests and surrounding unprepared communities, and challenges to securing fire funding for a state not always appreciated for the increasing and substantial wildfire issues it faces.
It would take us all, people from all professions, communities and agencies, knowing we each have a role to play, doing our parts and doing it together, to keep Hawaii safe and resilient in the face of our growing wildfire impacts.
Their approach is one that is supported today by FAC Net and the Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, both rolled out at the tail-end of their careers or shortly thereafter. But Wayne and Miles steered Hawaii’s trajectory in a similar direction long before. Their work was not the same as each other’s, nor were their focused activities or contributions identical, but they did what they did in tight communication and in partnership with each other and others across the state and country for a compounded impact. The fact that their remembrance here is so easily intertwined is a testament to their prioritization of teamwork to get things done and their shared hopes, lives and endeavors.
Their combined investments have enabled many of us in Hawaii to now work on par with our mainland counterparts, even offering relevant and useful lessons learned to our national colleagues on certain types of projects and approaches. This is something that was years in the making, and not the scene Miles and Wayne inherited in their early fire careers in Hawaii. We still have a lot of work to do, especially as we continue the hard work of strengthening collaborations across the state and Pacific, addressing our fuels, securing funds and on and on. But we can thank, deeply thank, Wayne and Miles for a large portion of the capacity, knowledge and collaborative framework we now enjoy in our work toward those goals. For myself and others, their presence was just as impactful on a personal level, too.
Lessons for us all
Even after they each retired, it was a comfort that they were still around, available for a call or a connection to a contact or to help guide the way forward. With their passing, those of us most touched by their lives and work have realized that now it is upon us to carry on and continue in their stead.
It is no small thing to look around and realize that you and your peers, once under the tutelage of wise, reputable and visionary leaders, people whose networks and friendships could make anything happen when necessary, are now left to carry the field forward. It leaves you gathering up all the lessons they shared before passing, all the needs they saw on the ground left unaddressed, and even the lines they drew in the sand, insisting we never cross them, lest we lose our humility, integrity or aloha.
Among those lessons:
- Truly care about what you are doing.
- Find ways to get the things done that need to get done. Set it up for long-term sustained success.
- Always work across boundaries, agencies, professions and backgrounds when you can.
- Build alliances over shared goals, even if there is disagreement about other topics.
- Be patient. Some things require the long game.
- Don’t be afraid to disagree and stand firm. Give ‘em hell when necessary. (That one is a little more from Miles and written fondly). 🙂
- Make friends, and cultivate good rich friendships that go way beyond the fireline or the office.
- Take your colleagues and staff fishing, hunting and to sports games. Help them make a bid on their first home purchase. Hug them when they are having challenges at home. Make them pizza. Dance with your spouse in front of them. Laugh with them about anything worth laughing about, and do it often. The right kind of humor can soften things and keep you on the same team.
And of all the lessons I hear echoing in my head these days, in Miles’ voice:
Trust the experiences of those who went before. It is a mistake to try to chart your own way just to stand out or establish independence. Make it your business to absorb the lifetime of learning of your predecessors in any way you can and then pick up where they left off. Keep building from there so real progress can take place. The goals require several generations to achieve and we are just a piece of that continuum.
I don’t get the impression that Miles Nakahara nor Wayne Ching were aiming to become giants of Hawaii’s wildland fire efforts. However, that is part of the legacy they each leave.
In their earnest care for Hawaii’s lands, waters and people, and with their authenticity, giving and inclusive style of friendship and leadership, they became giants whose shoulders it is an honor to stand upon. They were examples that remind us to do our best as part and parcel of the communities to which we belong, not in isolation. They also each had quirks and their own hard-earned lessons. That should give us hope, too, that we can still have a net positive impact even as we are learning our way through our work and lives.
An ode to our place in time
Missing them has shown me that there is a time dimension to ‘knowing our roles’ and ‘doing our parts’ in our wildland fire work too. We are paving the way for generations to come, and not just through fire plans or acres treated or only with the public or on the land. We have an important role to play with each other, too.
Reflecting on Miles and Wayne, it has become clear to me that even though the projects we work on get so much of our time and mental bandwidth, the legacies we leave unfold out of our process choices, the strength and inclusivity of our partnerships, our interpersonal connections to our colleagues and staff, and the examples we set through our work ethic and even our laughter.
So here’s a thankful and tearful nod to Miles and Wayne, and to all the giants upon whose shoulders we collectively stand, both living and passed.
May we honor them by doing our parts in meaningful ways, passing what we know forward, and laughing together as often as possible. So that we, too, leave something for others worth building on.
Elizabeth Pickett is co-Executive Director of Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, where she began working in 2008. Elizabeth works with staff and partners across the state and Pacific region to implement wildfire mitigation, planning, and education projects. Through her time at HWMO, she has witnessed how important collaboration and inclusive processes are on all projects, and believes such a coordinated and respectful approach is the pathway to wildfire readiness and resilience in Hawaii. She is Vice President of the Big Island Wildfire Coordinating Group and helped co-found the Pacific Fire Exchange project to develop and connect fire and land management science and practice. She earned a Masters of Environmental Science degree from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a Bachelors Degree from University of California, Berkeley.
* * * *