Assessing Hawaii’s wildfire risk: Communities across Hawaii wary of becoming ‘the next Lahaina’

Elizabeth Pickett

With the devastation of the Lahaina firestorm seared in most minds here and with experts saying the size, intensity and frequency of wildfires is on the rise in Hawaii, many residents are left wondering if the same thing could happen to their towns.

The answer, experts say, is yes.


In fact, 94% of Hawaii’s populated areas are vulnerable because they are either built into the wildland-urban interface or lie adjacent to vacant land overrun by highly flammable weeds, said Elizabeth Pickett, co-director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.

“The truth is that everywhere in the state where humans go is at risk of ignition,” Pickett said.

While drier leeward communities are the most vulnerable to wildfire, windward towns are becoming increasingly susceptible as the islands experience more frequent periods of drought.

“It’s not just a dry-side issue,” Pickett said. “We don’t even have a fire season anymore; it’s all year long on any side of the island.”

University of Hawaii at Manoa wildfire expert Clay Trauernicht said the annual area burned in Hawaii has increased by 300% in the past decades, making the percentage area of land burned on par with fire-prone Western states such as California.

The risk of wildfire in Hawaii is greater than 92% of states in the U.S., according to a U.S. Forest Service website called

In recent years island wildfires have been helped by a relatively new fuel source: highly flammable non-native grasses like guinea grass and haole koa. These grassy savannas, Trauernicht said, cover about a million acres across the main Hawaiian islands and are mostly the legacy of land clearing for plantation agriculture and ranching in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Another ingredient in the wildfire mix is the climate. Steven Businger, UH Department of Atmospheric Sciences professor, said the islands are getting less rainfall, which is making Hawaii a drier place with conditions more suited for wildfire.

On Aug. 8, wildfires on Maui and Hawaii Island were pushed by fierce winds driven by a phenomenon known as a downslope windstorm. The condition occurred when a strong high pressure area north of the state interacted with an area of low pressure created by Hurricane Dora south of the state, causing winds to whip down the mountainsides with gusts of 60 mph or more.

Businger said such downslope windstorms are notorious for occurring in the wintertime, but their frequency is likely to increase in the summer, when periods of drought and low humidity are more prevalent.

On Aug. 8, conditions were ripe for wildfire, and historic Lahaina, with its many wooden buildings and homes next to former sugar lands overrun by parched grass and brush, was an easy mark for the raging inferno.

Wind-driven flames killed at least 115 people, destroyed more than 2,200 structures in the heart of the seaside town and caused an estimated $5.5 billion in damage.

Following the disaster, communities across the state began to sit up and wonder if they are next.

Pickett of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization said the services and expertise of her small Big Island-based nonprofit are suddenly in high demand.

“In the last few weeks the size of our program has doubled, ” she said.

Among the events she’s been invited to speak at is the Sept. 19 meeting of the Kihei Community Association. The topic: “Will Kihei Be Next ?”

“This could have happened in our community,” said Michael Moran, association president.

Kihei, he said, has many similarities to Lahaina, including the fact that it is a dry, leeward community by the sea surrounded by former sugar cane fields.

The Kihei fire on Aug. 8 burned right up to the town’s northern edge and right up to the fencelines of 50-year-old wooden homes. And it’s not the first time. Five years ago, Moran said, another storm ripped across the open cane fields, causing the evacuation of the Maui Humane Society animal shelter.

“That should have been our first lesson. But it’s the same thing, a short attention span. It was close, nothing happened, so no mitigation took place,” he said.

Moran said the upcoming association meeting aims to get more people involved to push government into action. He said hopefully they will be asking the Maui County Council and mayor, “What are you doing about this? Are you going to wait until we become the next Lahaina here?”

Another leeward community worried about catastrophe is Waianae, which has a well-deserved reputation for wildfires. Last year, the Honolulu Fire Department responded to over 300 fires on the west side of Oahu alone.

“We’re vulnerable,” said Jonathan Ho‘omanawanui, chairman of the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board. “The same kind of stuff could happen to us. We’ve got one road in and one road out.”

At last week’s neighborhood board meeting, Ho‘omanawanui proposed a number of committees that would spring into action in times of emergency. He said the panels would examine such things as buying two-way radios, identifying rally point locations, organizing boat owners and practicing evacuations.

“Lahaina was a wake-up call,” he said. “It’s going to happen, but we just don’t know when.”

On the Big Island, the Waimea Community Association held a meeting Thursday to discuss the Lahaina tragedy and examine what happened on Hawaii island Aug. 8.

On Saturday the association sponsored the “Are You Ready?” Waimea Fire Prevention & Resilience Fair at Mana Christian ‘Ohana Kahilu Town Hall.

Kazuo Todd, Hawaii Fire Department chief, told Thursday’s meeting that his forces battled seven fires Aug. 8 and were hamstrung by high winds that rendered firefighting helicopters useless and overwhelmed slow-moving bulldozers.

In total, the flames consumed one sizable warehouse in the Mauna Kea Beach area and damaged seven other structures.

“We got very, very lucky,” Todd said. “It was an extremely touch-and-go event. And our personnel went out there and, in concert with the other agencies on the island, did an amazing job to stop and keep our fires from spreading that far.”

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, D-Hawaii, said she toured the burned areas of both Maui and Hawaii and said the damage could have been much worse.

“We could have seen a Lahaina here on Hawaii Island,” Tokuda told the group. “We really could have seen other communities face the same sad reality that Lahaina is facing right now. Quite frankly, every island I fly over in our district is suffering from similar drought conditions. This could have taken place on absolutely any island.”

Pickett said the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization has been working with fire departments and related agencies on wildfire prevention for more than two decades.

But it’s frustrating, she said, because prevention often gets short shrift in terms of money in Hawaii.

“There has been no money or prioritization by the people who control the budgets,” she said.

“So every partner who could do something is strapped and trying their best to compete for national money because there is no local money for wildfire mitigation. There is only a federal pot of funds, and we’re competing against California and all these other places, so only one or two projects get funded across the state.

“If we keep expecting that to work, we’re in for it, especially if our subdivisions are designed dangerously and there’s no accountability for the way land is managed,” Pickett said.

“If you’re going to wait for us to get enough money from nonprofits and watershed partnerships, and if (the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife ) keeps being underfunded and can’t manage the million of acres it’s responsible for with the tiniest pot of money, what else could we possibly do ?”

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