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Hawaii Conservation Conference - Wildfire Forum

  • 1801 Kalakaua Ave Honolulu, HI 96815 (map)

Presented By: PFX

As the wildfire issue continues to grow in Hawaii, PFX has taken another step to help raise the awareness level and grow the network by holding a Wildfire Forum on July 15th at the Hawaii Conservation Conference in Waikiki. PFX invited an eclectic group of speakers to provide perspectives ranging from the science, management, and community fields. The forum was meant to embody the spirit of the Cohesive Strategy: improved wildfire response, promotion of resilient landscapes, and fire adapted communities. The forum titled: Perspectives on Hawaii's Wildfire Problem - from Science and Management to Community Action, was moderated by PFX Co-Coordinator and UH Cooperative Extension Wildfire Specialist Dr. Clay Trauernicht who started the event with new data supporting the claim that wildfires are a growing concern in all of Hawai'i. Maps and data compiled by Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO) and analyzed by Dr. Trauernicht showed an increase in wildfire incidents over the past decade, incidents that occur almost entirely near roads and communities.

Following Dr. Trauernicht's introduction to the topic, Wayne Ching, long-standing Fire Management Officer for Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) kicked off a series of brief presentations. Mr. Ching, representing years of first responder knowledge, gave background on DOFAW's fire management program. He explained: "We're not a full-time firefighting agency. We're like a militia…" To address the need for support, DOFAW had relied heavily on its commitment to partners to help prevent mitigate, and suppress wildfires. A reduction in budgets, though a challenge, said Mr. Ching, had opened up new opportunities, including partnering with the U.S. Forest Service to expand its programs and suppression capabilities.

Adding to the suppression perspective, Chief Terry Seelig stepped up to the podium representing the Fire Prevention Bureau of the Honolulu Fire Department. Chief Seelig stressed the importance of partnership in order to strengthen fire suppression capabilities, a concern addressed by the formation of the Oahu Wildfire Information and Education Group (OWIE). OWIE was formed to share information amongst agencies and coordinate communication of such information to communities. Chief Seelig promoted the need to connect with communities by using "common nomenclature" to help communities understand wildfire issues and clarify the role and expectations of government agencies in fire emergencies. Suppression agencies, he explained, already had their hands tied due to a large amount of ignitions that were all due to human carelessness, recklessness, or a lot of times, maliciousness. Fortunately, no lives had been lost in a wildfire in Hawaii. "We fortunately haven't had that type of situation - don't wanna say lucky, because luck is something you can't count on. We try to count on planning, preparedness, and prevention."

Rhonda Loh, Chief of Natural Resources Management for the National Park Service at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (HAVO) phased into land management perspectives on the wildfire issue. Within all parks, the number and size of fires had increased over the years, most notably in HAVO where lava and lightning ignitions added to human ignitions. With over 50 federally listed plants and animals, fire management at the parks had proven a challenge but also an opportunity to explore new strategies for land management. Park Service personnel had conducted research burns in a variety of different regions of Volcanoes National Park to customize strategies that they could then mold to each area.

On the science side of the forum, Dr. Creighton Litton, Associate Professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) presented a collaborative research project that explored an often-overlooked ecosystem in the conservation field: nonnative grasslands of the Pacific Islands. Critical gaps and research needs existed in both fire ecology and wildfire prediction in these novel ecosystems. Now twenty-five percent of Hawaii's land area, nonnative grasslands in Hawaii had built up to unprecedented average fuel loads, "over twice as much as other grasslands around the world," Dr. Litton exclaimed. As climate change would only exacerbate wildfire conditions, the need for fire-resistant restoration through innovative and collaborative efforts would continue to grow.

Rounding out the presentation portion of the program, Pablo Beimler spoke on behalf of Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO) as the Education and Outreach Coordinator and representing the community aspect of the wildfire issue. Mr. Beimler highlighted HWMO's spearheading of Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) on Hawaii Island and just recently, Western Maui. CWPPs brought together "firefighters, land managers, and community members to discuss wildfire-related concerns and to make a prioritized action plan for all involved, explained Mr. Beimler. "The reason that collaborative, collective action is needed to deal with wildfires is because wildfire impacts span boundaries and across jurisdictions." HWMO recently received funding to complete 6 more CWPPs on Hawaii Island, Maui County, and Oahu in the next two years, opening up new federal funding opportunities for communities concerned with wildfire.

A short panel discussion with the presenters concluded the forum with audience members bringing-up questions on a variety of different wildfire topics. Panel members shared their expertise in what was a unique make-up of individuals, each with their own perspectives but aligned in their efforts to understand, prevent, and mitigate wildfires in Hawaii.