Dealing with wildfires in North Hawaii

The Aug. 8 wildfire that threatened lives, homes, sacred sites, property and coastal environments has caused the community to re-focus on the realities and responsibilities of living in North Hawaii.

On that day, the Hawaii Fire Department’s (HFD) South Kohala, Waimea and Waikoloa stations and Hawaii Police Department personnel were among the first to respond. Twenty-one-year veteran Captain Sean Sommers from the South Kohala station was determined to quell the fire, despite unusually challenging conditions. The dispatcher, with help from additional volunteers and retired firefighters, helped save the day with early organized and knowledgeable actions.

“It was truly, an ‘all hands on deck’ situation,” Sommers says.

Staff from North Kohala Fire Station, Puukohala Heaiu, Spencer Park, Department of Forestry and Wildlife, Civil Defense, Department of Public Works and Isemoto Contracting Company bulldozer operators joined the fight. Sommers watched Choppers 1 and 2 literally save properties. Lifeguards — recently equipped with jet skis — were also deployed to rescue a man stranded on Mauumae Beach.

With fewer per capita emergency resources than higher populated areas like Honolulu, HFD has to make strategic use of available resources to cover large geographic areas on challenging terrain. Communication, coordination among units, planning, training, equipment and following well-established priorites are crucial, according to Captain Sommers.

Another reality of rural living is that when major crises hit, unrelated emergencies such as medical and rescue must continue.

Pablo Beimler, education and outreach coordinator for Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO), has created a compelling video vividly depicting the Kawaihae wildfire’s cumulative damage to coastal areas. It can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kNo7Ucv28Y.

With this month’s fire coming close to the ocean, HWMO’s Executive Director Elizabeth Pickett says, “Most residents do not readily connect wildfire to coastal impacts because there is frequently a lag time and often geographic distance between fires and storm events.”

Planning ahead

Located in Waimea, HWMO provides numerous additional resources on their website at hawaiiwildfire.org. At their office and online, a “Ready, Set, Go! Your Personal Wildland Fire Action Guide” is available with a comprehensive set of recommendations customized for the Hawaii islands.

The non-profit organization is committed to facilitating collaborative efforts among Hawaii’s residents and landowners, natural resource managers and fire agencies to help combat wildfires’ destructive effects on life, homes and communities. They also protect native plants and forests and soil erosion unique to Hawaii.

A new objective is to help local communities become certified as Firewise communities, a concept noticed by insurance companies and endorsed by HFD. A program of the National Fire Protection Association, Firewise offers comprehensive practical recommendations for home construction, landscaping and wildfire preparedness.

For communities interested in the certification, HWMO provides guidance, support and access to their resources. HWMO can be contacted for more information at 885-0900 or by email at [email protected]

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