Trevor Lackey from Parker Ranch explains the company’s commitment to proactively preventing wildfires. (PHOTO BY CYNTHIA SWEENEY| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Mauna Kea State Park has signs throughout the area encouraging visitors to assist in preventing wildfires. (PHOTO BY CYNTHIA SWEENEY| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Participants from various wildfire organizations gather at Mauna Kea State Park on July 20 to discuss events of the 2010 fire that burned 25,000 acres. (PHOTO BY CYNTHIA SWEENEY| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Foresters have planted new pine trees at Mauna Kea State Park as part of the reforestation effort. (PHOTO BY CYNTHIA SWEENEY| SPECIAL TO NHN)
State Protection Forester Wayne Ching, HWMO board of directors President Miles Nakahara, Chief Glen Timble and Protection Forester Jay Hatayama describe events in the 2010 fire at Mauna Kea State Park. (PHOTO BY CYNTHIA SWEENEY| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Many parts of Hawaii Island are experiencing severe and extreme drought. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this includes Waikoloa, Puako, the northwest portion of North Kohala, and the Pohakuloa region of Hamakua.
With that in mind, local and statewide agencies are networking and focusing on wildfire prevention.
“It’s the nature of global warming. Now, we’re getting heavy rain or none at all. In the old days we would get a steady rain, now it’s sporadic. We’re still in a drought. Prevention (of fires) is where it’s at,” said Miles Nakahara, president of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization board of directors.
HWMO’s mission is to work with communities to be more fire wise and to reduce the risk of wildfires. Headquartered in Waimea, the organization’s outreach includes educational activities, fuels management projects — to reduce anything that will fuel a fire — restoration of native plants, research and even assisting in the development of K-8 curriculum on fire knowledge.
About 40 people attended HWMO’s annual meeting at the Pohakuloa Training Area last week to network and receive updates on the organization’s projects. Among those participating were representatives from the University of Hawaii Fire Management, Parker Ranch Fire Protection, Hawaii State Fish and Wildlife, Hawaii Island Native Seed Bank, and Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona, Kohala.
One of HWMO’s wide-reaching projects is a hazard assessment of every community on the island. By driving down every road on the island and assessing each area based on 36 hazard categories, they created hundreds of maps showing each areas vulnerability to fire. Criteria include accessible roadways, setback of houses and proximity to wilderness.
From the Puako Community Association, Peter Hackstedde described their isolated community’s efforts to create a firebreak by clearing brush and laying mulch. Parker Ranch, the largest landholder on the island, is also starting to take steps to become more proactive in preventing fires.
“We’re looking to change from reactive to proactive. We’ve just started documenting fires from the past and are learning from them,” said Trevor Lackey, employee of Parker Ranch. “We’re weeding through a lot of data to make strategies, installing dip tanks, to protect our own assets as well as our neighbors. Eventually we will have equipment, not just picks and shovels, to work with.”
Jen Lawson, a botanist with the Waikoloa Dry Forest Recovery Project, explained that in Waikoloa, 50 of the 275 acres of the Waikoloa Preserve have been cleared of brush, and fuel breaks and buffers are in place.
“It was done with no big equipment, just weedwackers and tedious work,” she said.
Since 1998, there have been 13,580 fires documented in the state of Hawaii.
HWMO and Pacific Fire Exchange, a multi-agency consortium including resource managers, fire responders, researchers and the community, have mapped out more than 10,000 of those fires, creating a database that can be used for community protection strategies. The vast majority of those fires have been located by roadway and home areas which means they have been primarily started by humans, either by accident or arson.
A case in point is an intentionally set wildfire that burned more than 25,000 acres of critical habitat at Mauna Kea State Park in 2010. Saddle Road was closed as the fire — determined by authorities to be arson — raged and jumped across the road. Nearby Pohakuloa Training Area prepared to evacuate all personnel and weaponry. The nearby base was able to supply water, helicopters and food for ground responders.
Because of the mamane and naio trees in the area, the fire burned so hot, the fire was not declared contained until a month after it was out. Three years later, the land is still so dry and scorched that restoration experts are at a loss as to how to revive it.
“Nothing is growing there, it’s all nuked. The most important thing, the lesson learned, is we need to wake up about our critical habitats,” Nakahara said. “With the mamane trees, that fire is going to burn hot. We need to figure out what we’re going to do on a management level. How are we going to protect it? Prevention is where it’s at.”
HWMO’s next meeting will be in December. For more information, visit hawaiiwildfire.org, or call HWMO at 885-0900.