Field Notes - What do we get from meetings? Back-to-back(-to-back) conferences in Hawaii

This photo of a head fire in nonnative guinea grass in a fallow ag lot was featured in each of the 4 presentations I gave over the past month. 24% of Hawaii's land area (almost 1 million acres) is covered in fire-prone, nonnative grasslands and shrublands (photo by C. Trauernicht).

I've been spending more time indoors for work than I like...

Nearly one month of back to back meetings began with the Hawaii Ecosystems Meeting in Hilo. Run each year by Dr. Peter Vitousek, the meeting is an incredible opportunity to meet some of the cleverest scientists working in hawaii....from undergrads on up through the ranks.  It's largely a terrestrial ecology crowd but there's enough marine stuff and a growing number of talks by social scientists to round things off a bit.  Ever low key and casual (though not in terms of talk content or quality), the mostly 5 minute elevator pitch-style presentation format keeps the pace brisk and everyone in the same room.  It also makes for A LOT of information to process over a couple days and Dr. Vitousek thrives on bringing like minds together and watching the sparks crackle.  I attempted to compress a summary of Hawaii's wildfire history into my slotted time (I began the introduction still walking down the aisle).  But if any set of minds could soak in data packed that densely in time it was these folks.  Fortunately the bulk of information I was attempting to lay out also kept me from focusing on the fact that there were some true kupuna in the room regarding wildfire and Hawaii's landscape....Drs. Mueller-Dombois, Hughes, Tunnison, Vitousek, D'Antonio et. al...the list is long and ever humbling.

The following week's much smaller meeting of the Big Island Wildfire Coordinating Group (BIWCG) brought me back into the realm of fire that is much newer to me...fire response, a community who have showed me nothing but welcome and respect but among whom I feel like the lowly, probably somewhat over-eager apprentice.  The realm of incident command - the coordination of emergency and disaster response efforts - is completely new to me and I'm utterly awed and fascinated by the responsibilities fire responders shoulder.  I've been learning, though, and trying to get a handle on the linkages between the experience and minds of colleagues at a place like Dr. Vitousek's meeting and the experience and minds that gather for the regular BIWCG meetings - the fire chiefs, fire management officers, and fire responders from the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Hawaii County Fire Department, Civil Defense, and the National Park Service - folks that have been respectfully staring fire down the gullet collectively for decades.  Still figuring it out....at the very least I've been able to analyze the data from the fire history - their data - and trying to spur the conversation about what to do with it....public outreach and education? politician education?  County,state, federal governments?

In the meantime, I continued to work the science community hard, this time right in my front yard at the first Island Biology conference held at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  Scientists are also stakeholders after all - we need more of them working on fire and more of them tackling questions fire response agencies and land managers have.  The conference was an amazing effort by Don Drake at the University of Hawaii and collaborators.  Brilliant minds working on evolution, geography, vegetation, conservation, natural history etc. on islands worldwide.  I submitted an abstract for this one earlier in the year....'The scale and context of Hawaii's wildfire problem and partner driven solutions'...a mouthful, perhaps a bit more management focused than most talks and got scheduled for the last talk of the last session on the last day (Thanks don). But it gave me time to peruse and learn and ponder all these different island systems and begin to obsess about the fact that only one other talk involved fire.  I should also mention there were some great plenary talks....Drs. Peter and Rosemary Grant who have famously and literally measured evolution in Galapagos finch appearance and behavior within their lifetime...a great talk by Peter Vitousek about Hawaii as a model system for connecting ecological and social science (why is that so challenging?), among others.  But it's my job to obsess about fire and I continued to do so - during the talks I began pulling up active fire detection data from MODIS satellites from NASA's webpage and there they were....records and records of fires on pretty much every island chain I looked at.  Made for a good lead in to my talk, but that story is to be continued.  So all in all a really well done conference and I was thankful for the opportunity to talk about fire in Hawaii and to all the people the rallied to my 11th hour time slot.

And last but not least, right on the heels of 5 days of Island biology, came the 22nd annual Hawaii Conservation Conference.  And in the spirit of linking experience and minds, the Pacific Fire Exchange took this conference as opportunity to host a forum on wildfire in Hawaii, bringing together people working on fire in the context of response, science, resource management, and community outreach: Wayne Ching, Fire Management Officer for Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Chief Terry Seelig of the Fire Prevention Bureau of the Honolulu Fire Department, Dr. Rhonda Loh, Chief of Resource Management at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Dr. Creighton Litton, Associate Professor of Forest Ecology and Management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and our own Pablo Beimler, who stepped up to the plate at the last minute to present on Community Wildfire Protection Plans on behalf of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.  And what were the outcomes?  Well, we got to hear a diversity of perspectives that all intersect at fire management.  We also provided the audience the opportunity to pose questions to a panel of experts who aren't regularly found sitting at the same table.  And it was another effort to put fire 'on the map' for people in the management and conservation community.  

What about impacts?  As always, that's a tougher question to answer.  We're working hard to make wildfire a common consideration and point of discussion among the science and resource management community in Hawaii and wider Pacific.  The results of hustling and hoofing it around to all these meetings are difficult to quantify, but its critical to being part of the community here in Hawaii.  When fire occurs here, as elsewhere, it tends to speak for itself.  But in the meantime, we're taking full advantage of the opportunities to provide the resources and the voice to get fire management integrated into the thoughts and actions of our community.


Clay Trauernicht
Extension Fire Specialist
University of Hawaii at Manoa