BY RON ELAND
North Hawaii News
Despite a little bit of blood, lots of sweat and a probably a few tears, residents of Kohala by the Sea considered Saturday’s workday a success.
About 20 residents — down a few due in part to the holiday — turned out to trim trees, pull weeds and clear gullies with the purpose of reducing their community’s risk of brush or wildfires.
“We’ve seen wild fire close-up — they’ve come through this area before,” said Diana Bonnici, Firewise chairman for Kohala by the Sea, a gated community off the Akoni Pule Highway just north of Kawaihae.
Firewise Communities/USA is a national program available to fire-prone communities to reduce their risk to wildfire. Its goal is to encourage and acknowledge action that minimizes home loss to fire. It teaches people to prepare for a wildfire before it occurs.
KBTS is the only community in the state that has achieved national recognition as part of the Firewise Communities USA program, an honor it has received seven years in a row.
“The residents of KBTS are to be commended for their efforts to achieve and maintain their Firewise Communities status,” said Denise Laitinen, statewide coordinator for Firewise Communities. “Their community is a great example of how residents can come together and make their neighborhood safer from wildfire.
“There are several communities that have started to undertake some of the steps to be Firewise but just haven’t completed all five steps. While it would be great to see more communities achieve national recognition status, the most important thing is that people take steps to protect their homes from wildfire.”
Resident Bobbie Terai agreed.
“We’re all real proud of that,” she said of the nationwide recognition. “Plus, with the workdays, you get to know your neighbors by working together. It’s hard work but in the end, it brings us all closer together so it’s worth it.”
Laitinen said becoming a Firewise community is relatively simple. The five steps she spoke of include:
1. Form a Firewise committee, task force, or hui for your community or neighborhood.
2. Have a wildfire hazard assessment conducted for the community to determine the community’s wildfire risk. The assessment identifies agreed upon achievable solutions to be implemented by the community.
3. The community implements the plan. In the case of KBTS that meant reducing the amount of kiawe in a gulch that ran through the community. The Firewise program asks that a minimum of $2 per capita annually be invested in Firewise projects. That means $2 per person in the Firewise community. This includes matching funds of grants. Since volunteer labor time counts for $16 per hour as matching funds for a grant this is achieved very easily.
4. Hold a Firewise community event once a year. KBTS does this with their community work days twice a year. The fall workday is a bigger event with a demonstration by the fire department after the work potion of the day followed by a community get-together.
5. Apply for Firewise Communities USA status.
“We’d love to see more communities involved because we’ll all be a lot safer,” Bonnici, said. “I feel we’re an important model of how to bring fire safety to a community.”
In 2003, KBTS residents Sharon Cislo and Fabio Franzo attended a Firewise presentation in Waikoloa Village — which has been no stranger to wildfires over the years.
“This area is so fire prone,” Cislo said Saturday during a brief break of pulling cut kiawe branches from a nearby gully. “In the 1990s fire came through here and has hit nearby areas over the years like Kohala Ranch. We introduced the Firewise program at a community meeting and the response was terrific. We all tend to get complacent at times and think that it (fire) can’t happen to us. Sadly, it’s not if but when.”
Cislo also pointed out that the ages of those at Saturday’s workday ranged from 45 to 79.
“We’re not a bunch of kids out here,” she said, laughing.
Laitinen, who was at that initial KBTS meeting, said residents formed a Firewise committee on the spot that night. They identified an emergency access issue they wanted to address right away. They created info packets with free Firewise materials which were distributed to every homeowner in the area. They incorporated Firewise practices into their design committee rules and their CC&Rs. So, every time lot owner submits plans to build a home they and their architect/contractor are given a free video on how to build a Firewise home and a Firewise construction checklist.
“People on this island just seem to “get it” when it comes to being Firewise,” she said. “Although I am the statewide Firewise coordinator, I actually do twice as much work on this island than all the other islands combined. I lived on Maui for about a decade but moved to the Big Island six years ago because I do so much community work over here. The communities are very interested in Firewise.”
One of Terai’s jobs Saturday was to put Cross Bow on the stumps of kiawe trees to prevent them from growing back.
“By keeping fuels (such as the highly-combustible kiawe tree) low we have a better chance of stopping the fire and thus protecting our homes,” she said.
But more times than not, Mother Nature isn’t the one to blame for wildfires.
“Unfortunately the top three causes of wildfire on Hawaii Island are human related — human error, arson, and fireworks,” Laitinen said. “With summer fire season upon us, it’s crucial that homeowners take steps to make sure their house is safe from wildfire.”
For more information, visit www.firewise.org or call Laitinen at 808-281-3497.