Wildfire risk reduction in the shadow of volcanoes, lava flows and earthquakes

Blog Post created by twelle Employee on May 29, 2018

During the first week of May, 2018, the big island of Hawaii hosted the first Hawaii Wildfire Summit.  The conference was hosted by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, (HWMO), a non-profit dedicated to reducing wildfire risks through local networks and engagement.  They brought together over 140 practitioners, fire management agencies, partners and residents to learn about fire ecology and risk reduction efforts.


But just to make sure the attendees understood some of the unique challenges faced in the islands, they somehow managed to schedule a 6.9 earthquake and some significant volcanic activity from Kilauea.  All kidding aside, the resultant lava flow ended up in resident's backyards destroying 36 homes and forcing the evacuation of over 1700 people.  There have been some wildfires caused by the flow, but have been of lesser consequence compared to the lava and being the rainy season, have not grown to significance.


That was not the only unique thing I observed while in Hawaii.  As we made our first stop of the Fire Ecology tour, members of our group conducted a "Pule", a sort of Hawaiian prayer song that is a "protocol"  of orientation to place and a recognition of all that came before.  It is also a recognition of the importance of the natural resources and statement of our intent that day with relation to those resources.  It was a very grounding experience to the close relationship that those living in Hawaii have with their natural environment.  Maybe that explains the  lack of wide scale panic as lava was slowly flowing through neighborhood streets, but rather an acceptance of a way of life.


This is also shown in the approach HWMO uses in helping communities reduce wildfire risk.  Having conversations with residents to see what is needed rather than telling them what they need is their desired method.  Developing the relationship and then figuring out what to do to reduce risk works well here.  Since their first

Firewise USA ® site, Kohala by the Sea, came on board in 2004, they have now grown to a total of 11 sites on two islands.


Also while I was there, National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day happened.  I was part of a "Colorado Contingent" attending the conference that included Emily Troisi from the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and Cesar Gellido from "Saws and Slaws", both from Boulder County.  We attended a work day at the Kohala Waterfront community and Cesar broke out the chainsaw and began helping the residents trim trees while they removed and hauled the slash.  I guess you don't have to live there to help be part of the solution.


So my hat is off to Elizabeth Pickett, Pablo Beimler and the rest of the HWMO staff as well as their partners from the State of Hawaii, the National Park Service, the Department of Defense and Hawaii County Fire Department for setting a high bar for their first wildfire summit.  As Hawaii wrestles with economic and natural forces that affect its wildfire situation, there is much to be learned from how they stand together, engage and adapt to wildfire.