Did you know that the Hawaiian Islands have wildfires? According to the Hawaiian Wildfire Management Organization, about 0.5% of Hawaii’s total land area burns annually, as much or more than the proportion of land are burned in any other US state. In Hawaii, 98% of wildfires are human caused. These ignitions, along with increasing non-native fire prone grasses and shrubs and a warming, drying climate, contribute to an increase in the wildfire problem in the islands.
Wildfire in Hawaii, like anywhere else, threatens the safety of firefighters, residents and homes. It also causes damage to the air quality, which impacts human health, and contributes to soil erosion problems that can cause damage to sensitive coral reefs. One of the partners in Hawaii working to help lessen the loss due to wildfire in Hawaii is the Hawaiian Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO). They are a small nonprofit organization that has been working together with fire departments, the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, communities and others to help develop Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) and Firewise Communities. The HWMO was officially founded in 2000 by a group of South Kohala/North Kona regional experts who wanted to create a non-profit organization to serve as an arm for the fire suppression and land management agencies to conduct prevention, pre-suppression, and post-fire work. They became incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 2002. Since then, they have grown to not only address wildfire issues for all of Hawaii Island, but also the entire state and some of the Western Pacific (namely Yap, Palau, Guam).
According to Pablo Beimler, Coordinator with HWMO, "Although we have a small staff, HWMO is continually able to accomplish a number of projects due to its extensive partnerships. We can't say it enough: by staying in communication with their partners on each project, and expanding partnerships where needed, they are able to ensure our projects stay grounded and effective."
The organization has helped create 12 CWPPs that include the entire island of Kauai, western Ohau, Western Maui, South Maui, Upcountry Maui, Molokai, Northwest Hawaii Island, North Kona, South Kona, Ocean View, Kau, and Volcano. The organization helped a new community, Kanehoa Subdivision in Kamuela, receive Firewise recognition in 2015. Pablo Beimler also shared that, "We are working with communities starting to become Firewise, including: Waialea, Waikii Ranch, Waikoloa Village andPuako on Hawaii Island; Pii Lani Mai and Ke Kai (Anahola Hawaiian Homes) on Kauai; Kula Hawaiian Homes on Maui; and finally Palehua on Oahu." HWMO aims to assist at least 10 communities across the state to become Firewise during 2016.
HWMO staff have been in contact with committee members from Kohala By the Sea, (a recognized Firewise Community since 2004) including their new chair, who has helped provide them lessons learned about their Firewise successes. Pablo says, "It's challenging enough to gather a community together to work for a common goal, but to continually work together for a number of years and achieve Firewise status is admirable and has become a model for the other Firewise Community efforts. We look forward to continuing to share KBS's successes with the other communities through work day events and meet-and-greets."
Pablo described other wildfire preparedness projects in which HWMO is involved. "We have a Firewise demonstration garden in Waikoloa Village, where we have a number of native, drought-tolerant plants growing strategically around a demo home to give community members an example of good defensible space practices. Our team has held a number of community events at the garden and have had a youth environmental empowerment group called the Malama Kai Ocean Warriors help be the ‘stewards’ of the garden. In terms of other youth outreach, we also go to numerous schools and youth programs to teach students about wildfire prevention and preparedness, including Firewise and Ready, Set, Go! principles. We also hold community wildfire preparedness workshops for various organizations/groups or for the general public where we give people a run-down on Firewise and Ready, Set, Go!."
The NFPA Wildland Fire team would like to take the opportunity to say Mahalo (thank you) to the Hawaiian Wildfire Management Organization for their enthusiastic and effective outreach and for using NFPA's Firewise Communities/USA® Recognition Program to help residents in the South Pacific understand wildfire and work together to lessen their risk of loss.