Nina Wu – The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Sep. 25—One recent August evening, Brett Schenk went for a walk to Waahila Ridge State Recreation Area, where he noticed a young boy overloading a barbecue grill at a pavilion with branches just before closing time.
Schenk watched as the pile got higher, with embers dropping off the grill and onto the concrete below. The boy kept going, and his parents did not stop him.
He continued his walk home, but feeling uneasy about it, drove back about a half-hour later to find a pile of burning coals and ashes dumped on the ground, just a few feet away from dry pine needles, with winds blowing.
Alarmed, he called police to report the Aug. 26 incident and wildfire risk.
“It was extreme negligence, ” he said of the pile left behind. “They didn’t put the fire out.”
A family member happened to return to retrieve a pair of sunglasses, and after being informed, agreed to put the fire out completely using a nearby water spigot, with apologies.
Like many others, Schenk is extra vigilant of potential wildfires in the wake of the deadly Aug. 8 disaster on Maui, along with increasing drought conditions across the state.
Schenk is also a neighborhood security watch block captain in St. Louis Heights, where he’s lived for more than 30 years.
Fire prevention is important for the neighborhood, he said, due to the abundance of dry brush, low water pressure and challenges of traveling up the narrow roadways.
Even as he drives across Oahu, Schenk, a Realtor at Horita Realty, is paying attention to overgrown, dry brush and thickets of browned-out haole koa alongside highways.
“I look for anything dry and brown, and imagine it catching fire because of a cigarette or aberrant ash, ” he said.
Oahu wildfire risks Like Lahaina, the west side of Oahu is at high risk for wildfires.
The Waianae coastline and valleys are hot spots due to a high number of ignitions per square mile, dry conditions and an abundance of invasive grass fuels.
But East Honolulu on the opposite end is also vulne rable, according to Mike Walker, state protection forester for the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
Some fire-prone areas include the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline by the Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail, along with browned-out slopes of Koko Crater and Diamond Head.
A map compiled by Hawaii Wildfire shows ignitions over recent years have occurred at Kaiwi, near Hawaii Kai Golf Course, and in Kamilonui and Hahaione valleys.
There are also flare-ups in Central Oahu, including Wahiawa, Waipio and Kunia, and other spots along Oahu’s North Shore.
Oahu’s North Shore is considered at high risk due to frequent human-caused ignitions, along with windy and seasonable dry conditions and steep, inaccessible terrain, according to a Community Wildfire Protection Plan from 2021.
The plan found that wildfires have repeatedly been a problem on the North Shore, with hot spots concentrated between the towns of Wahiawa and Waialua and some small fires at Dillingham Airfield and Kaena Point State Park.
There is also extensive, fire-prone grassland in areas such as Mokuleia, with limited access that could slow emergency response times.
Becoming Firewise Elizabeth Reilly of Livable Hawaii Kai Hui said the community realized it needed to be proactive after experiencing numerous wildfires five or so years ago.
In 2017 and 2018 there were more than a dozen wildfires in the back of Kamilonui Valley, which is largely agricultural, and along the road between Mariner’s Cove homes.
She and other groups decided to be proactive and worked with the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization to certify Kamilonui-Mariner’s Cove as a “Firewise community ” which includes a hazard assessment and action plan.
The nonprofit helped organize workdays where volunteers teamed up to whack at weeds, clear out vegetation and create several firebreaks, including one near Mariner’s Cove.
Volunteers continue to maintain these firebreaks on a regular basis, according to Reilly.
She noticed the mauka area of Kaiwi is much drier this year, and going forward, Livable Hawaii Kai Hui plans to include wildfire preparedness into its educational hikes.
The nonprofit also plans to adjust its land plans to ensure firebreaks are added, implemented and maintained, she said.
“Our goal is to get more people educated, and to be responsible for their own footprint and house, then hui to create more firewise communities, ” she said. “You can’t rely on the city to do it all, so we all have to come together if we love these places.”
There are 15 communities in Hawaii designated as Firewise by the national program, according to Hawaii Wildfire. On Oahu, only the Kamilonui Valley-Mariner’s Cove community has become a Firewise site, while Waialae Iki is in the process of becoming one.
Sparks and drought The majority of fires in Hawaii, 99 %, are human-caused, according to Walker, most of it accidental rather than by natural causes such as lightning.
This includes accidental sparks by equipment, hot exhaust on dry grass, children playing with lighters, campfires, the proliferation of illegal fireworks, and arson. He recalls a 2017 fire in Mokuleia that started after someone idled their truck over dry grass.
“I’d say the bulk of our ignitions, because they’re human-caused, they are preventable one way or the other, ” he said.
Conditions are ripe this summer, with more than 81 % of the Hawaiian Islands in moderate to severe drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday. Drought is expected to intensify through December.
This summer, dozens of wildland fires flared up along the Waianae Coast—from the of Kaena Point to Maili—and in, Ewa Beach and Kapolei. On Aug. 8, a brushfire burned near Patsy T. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park in Waipio.
On Friday, the Honolulu Fire Department responded to a small wildland fire near Makai Research Pier in Waimanalo.
The fire, reported at about 6 :42 a.m., involved a 50-by-50-foot area on the mauka side, which crews were able to contain by about 8 :30 a.m. after several water drops via HFD’s Air 1 helicopter.
On Sept. 18, firefighters responded to a 40-by-40-foot wildland fire at a vacant lot on Goodale Avenue in Waialua. Four units were dispatched at about 6 :45 p.m. and controlled the fire by about 7 p.m., and extinguished it by about 7 :30 p.m.
Smaller fires, which often result in no damage to structures or injuries, are generally not reported by the media.
There is now year-round fire activity in Hawaii, said Walker, due to a warming climate and the pervasiveness of grasses that become more flammable during droughts.
At the same time, fire-prone areas across the isles are increasing as these invasive and highly adaptive grasses take over forestlands.
Every time there is a wildfire, fire-adaptive plants such as guinea grass replace native plants unable to adapt or survive these fires, according to Walker. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
“We call it the grass-fire cycle, ” he said, “where you can convert forest into savanna with repeated fires, and it keeps eating away at the forest.”
As he drives around, Schenk is also being proactive. When he notices dry brush on lands that appear abandoned or unmanaged, he snaps photos and sends them to state representatives.
He also supports the idea of a state fire marshal, which Hawaii does not have. The state fire marshal should be budgeted for an assistant and deputy on each island, he said.
“The funds that the state invests in a fire marshal will pay back tenfold in helping to reduce the risk of disasters like Lahaina, ” he said.
BECOMING FIREWISE—The Hawaii Wildlife Management Organization offers a “Ready, Set, Go !” fire action guide, downloadable from. It includes tips, tools to prepare for a wildland fire threat, how to protect your home, and emergency kit checklist.—To learn more about the Firewise USA program, visit.
Source : HWMO
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