Maui Fire Lawyers – Removing Hawaii’s Fire-Prone Vegetation Is a Tall Challenge

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM John Valderama sat along a new firebreak Friday across from his mother’s home on Koahi Street in Varona Village. A contractor working for the state recently bulldozed the area to reduce the wildfire risk.

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

John Valderama sat along a new firebreak Friday across from his mother’s home on Koahi Street in Varona Village. A contractor working for the state recently bulldozed the area to reduce the wildfire risk.

John Valderama has long worried about about wildfire threatening a small Ewa Villages community, and a few weeks ago a contractor working for the state bulldozed a firebreak on city land next to a narrow street and his mother’s home in Varona Village.

The work, which created an 80-foot-wide strip of bare dirt mixed with grass nubs where waist-high dry grass previously stood, provides valuable protection but only represents a tiny fraction of recommended wildfire risk reduction in Hawaii, where so much of the state’s land- scape is a tinderbox.

According to a 2018-19 assessment by the Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization, about 350 miles of landscape alteration statewide was needed to reduce high wildfire risk — a distance encircling Oahu about 2-1/2 times.

Creating firebreaks by removing fire-prone vegetation is one part of the recommendation, along with trimming down vegetation to create “fuel breaks” and replacing vegetation with crops or other plants that aren’t high fire risks.

The Aug. 8 wildfire disaster in Lahaina, which killed at least 99 people and destroyed most of the Maui town, has made many more people aware of long-existing wildfire risk in Hawaii. But significantly reducing this risk remains a huge challenge.

Impediments include a scarcity of funding, a need for long-term management, and in many cases cooperation between different landowners and other stakeholders.

“It takes years to plan, apply for funding and carry those kinds of projects out,” Elizabeth Pickett, HWMO’s co-executive director, said in an email, “so it is a long game absent of local or steady funding sources.”

HWMO extols the value of prevention as vastly outweighing cost, which can be hard for landowners to recognize.

“No one wants to do it because it costs money and it commits you to an active management plan,” said University of Hawaii at Manoa wildfire expert Clay Trauernicht. “Public safety costs money. That’s just what it
comes down to.”

HWMO has long promoted best practices for wildfire mitigation, has mapped out high-risk areas across the state, and can help interested landowners and others apply for mitigation work grants.

One recipient of such a grant in recent years was a nonprofit established by a Kauai Fire Department captain with concerns about where he lives being harmed by wildfire.

Jeremie Makepa established ‘Aina Alliance to reduce risk on about 400 acres of previously unmanaged land owned by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands next to the Anahola homestead subdivision where he lives.

Damage from the Lahaina fire is estimated at $5.6 billion.

From April 2021 to February 2022, the nonprofit was able to attract help from others that included DHHL, community volunteers, the Kauai County Department of Public Works and the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife to cut 10 miles of firebreak roads into the area where frequent brush fires had occurred.

Makepa, who described the effort during a Pacific Fire Exchange webinar in August, said it was a high cost endeavor in part because a lot of abandoned cars and other trash had to be hauled away for proper disposal.

An initial three miles of firebreak roads took six weeks to create using heavy equipment and would have cost $60,000 without donated work, according to DHHL.

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