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Millions of dollars proposed for Hawaiʻi wildfire mitigation and response : Maui Now

Hawai’i Island wildfire apparatus, Waimea (Nov. 15, 2023). PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR

This year’s series of wildfires on Maui, Hawai‘i Island, and O‘ahu raised awareness about this threat to a new level. It is reflected in the proposed budget Governor Josh Green, M.D., submitted to the state Legislature on Monday. 

The DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife has primary responsibility for fire pre-suppression and firefighting on the one million acres of state land under its jurisdiction, according to state officials. DOFAW wildland firefighters also provide mutual support for county fire departments and federal partners, on another million acres statewide.

Department officials reports the need for more resources for wildfire response, recovery and prevention is something natural resource leaders have been seeking for a long-time. 

  • Hawai’i Island wildfire apparatus, Waimea (Nov. 15, 2023). PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR

  • Hawai’i Island wildfire apparatus, Waimea (Nov. 15, 2023). PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR

  • Hawai’i Island wildfire apparatus, Waimea (Nov. 15, 2023). PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR

  • Hawai’i Island wildfire apparatus, Waimea (Nov. 15, 2023). PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR

  • Hawai’i Island wildfire apparatus, Waimea (Nov. 15, 2023). PC: Hawaiʻi DLNR

DOFAW Administrator David Smith said, “If the legislature approves the Governor’s proposed budget for statewide wildfire mitigation and response, it will go a long way toward making sure we have the resources to fight wildfire effectively. More importantly, the proposed budget includes significant funding for reducing fuels as one of the critical components of what we call, ‘pre-suppression.’ 

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The Governor’s budget request includes $10 million for fire equipment, which according to DOFAW, is one of the greatest needs. 

At the DOFAW base yard in Hilo, Assistant Protection Forester Jordan ‘Kama’ Lee-Loy describes one of two 50-year-old tankers. “This one isn’t being used anymore. The clutch went out and that’s a big fix. Finding parts for this old, outdated vehicle is difficult.” 

DOFAW maintains firefighting forces on all the main Hawaiian Islands and each branch still has antique fire apparatus. Some vehicles still run, but even those trucks and pumpers require a lot of maintenance before and after fires and Lee-Loy says that gets  expensive.  

It’s up to DOFAW mechanic Mike Yamachika and his co-workers to try and keep everything running and safe. Unfortunately, there’s no modern replacement for one especially useful piece of equipment, department officials said.

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The Gama Goat is a Vietnam war-era, six-wheel drive, military vehicle that can basically traverse about anything. At the Leilani Fire on Hawai‘i Island in 2022, the gangly vehicles were critical in transporting firefighters across lava fields and unimproved roads to reach places where fire crews could effectively battle the flames. 

Yamachika said, “They require a lot of maintenance, and you can’t buy new ones. Mexico bought a bunch of Gama Goats from the US, and they also purchased a lot of the parts inventory, so parts are hard to come by. We were lucky enough to purchase some spare parts before that, so when one breaks, we can fix it. There will come a time, probably within the next 10 years, when we won’t have parts and the life span of these vehicles will come to an end.” 

Gov. Green’s proposed budget also calls for $7.4 million in general funds for fire response, rehabilitation, and fuels reduction. 

Since the Maui fires in August, DOFAW State Protection Forester Mike Walker has repeatedly responded to questions about the approximately 250,000 acres of state land under the division’s control now covered by invasive grasses. 

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“After a fire or other ground disturbance, invasive grasses, like Guinea grass are the first plants to sprout. They out compete native species and there’s no easy, effective way to control them once that happens,” Walker explained. 

Flying over the Mililani-Mauka fire on O‘ahu last month, Walker pointed out the location of a previous fire in the same area. Invasive grasses have overtaken the landscape in many places.

During an interview with 60 Minutes, above Lahainaluna High School, Walker showed the crew acre upon acre of invasive grass that replaced sugarcane once that industry folded. “The issue of invasive grasses is not one with an easy, readily identifiable solution,” Walker said. 

In addition to trying to control invasive grasses and rehabilitating lands post-fire, pre-suppression includes activities like creating fire breaks and fuel reduction. 

DLNR Chair Dawn Chang said, “The funding Gov. Green has proposed will provide DOFAW the necessary tools it needs to not only fight fire, but more importantly prevent them. The threat of wildfire, in our changing climate especially with extreme drought conditions, is real and we need to be prepared. Wildfires impact our natural and cultural resources and as we saw in Lahaina, can cause mass destruction and tremendous loss of life. It’s critical that we be maka‘ala, vigilant, and dedicate resources to prevent and control wildfires, and restore the forests in their aftermath,  for our community today and future generations to come.” 

Source: Maui News

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