Maui has the know-how to deal with wildfire risk

VIEWPOINT

I appreciate your newspaper’s coverage of the West Maui fires (The Maui News, Jan. 27), especially with respect to their impact on the local community. I agree these fires raise many serious questions. However, I’d also offer that many, many people are working on the very answers to those questions across the state.

It’s not rocket science — there are just three ingredients to every wildfire: an ignition source, fuels to burn and the right climate. Local knowledge and local action can help with two of these. For fuels, Rep. McKelvey hit it on the head in the article: rains come, the grass grows, rains stop, the grass burns, aka, the grass-fire cycle.

Maui is now firmly in the post-plantation era, and the West Maui fires are only the most recent example of what eventually happens when large, tropical grasslands go untended. But the fuels — all that grass — is the one thing that we can directly change to reduce fire risk. Fuel breaks can be expanded to slow fires and provide access for firefighters. Livestock are incredible tools to keep fire risk down. We can plant other things — active agricultural lands don’t burn (or they burn when we want them to) and restoring forest cover and riparian vegetation can limit the potential for fires to spread.

Ignitions are trickier. Electricity infrastructure is clearly an important area to explore. But the greatest percentage of ignitions in Hawaii come from human activities, both accidental and intentional. Here’s where education on how to prevent fires but also about what’s at stake when fire burn is critical. As for climate, its quite clear that on our present course, the coming decades will only get more difficult for fire suppression.

But far more important than these ideas are the people who are turning them to action. Just in Maui County, the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife and Maui County Fire Department organize the West Maui Fire Task Force and Molokai Fire Task Force to improve communication among fire response agencies, landowners, and land managers. All of the watershed partnerships, The Nature Conservancy and reef conservation groups tackle multiple projects from fuels management to ecosystem restoration to public education and outreach. Homeowners at Waiohuli, Launiupoko and Kahikinui worked with the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (hawaiiwildfire.org) to get nationally certified as Firewise Communities.

Still, we cannot diminish the scope of the challenge. This submission offers little to alleviate the trauma felt by the families who experienced and suffered losses in these fires. Yet there’s no better reason to take this issue head on, and no reason Hawaii cannot take matters into its own hands.

While we continue to compete with other states for federal fire mitigation funding, California decided last year to allocate $195 million for a Fire and Forest Health fund. The West Maui fires are, again, just the latest example of the cost wildfires continue to exert in terms of life, property and our irreparable and irreplaceable cultural and natural resources. Just like with climate change, we know what steps will reduce the risk of wildfire, but actually taking these steps will require reinvesting in and, frankly, reimagining our individual and collective responsibility for the larger landscape.

* Clay Trauernicht, Ph.D. is a wildland fire specialist with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension.

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