Input needed for Community Wildfire Protection Plans

Work to reduce wildfire threat on Hawaii Island continued last week as a community meeting was held to generate concerns and solutions.

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Work to reduce wildfire threat on Hawaii Island continued last week as a community meeting was held to generate concerns and solutions.

Feedback garnered Wednesday evening at Konawaena Elementary School will be used to produce an updated Community Wildfire Protection Plan for South Kona. It’s one of four plans being created for free by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. Other areas getting an updated plan are Volcano, Ka‘u and Ocean View. The North Kona plan will be developed in the near future.

Community Wildfire Protection Plans are authorized and defined in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which gives the public the opportunity to influence where and how agencies should work with communities in implementing fuel reduction projects and protecting resources from loss.

These plans are a prerequisite for federal funding for projects, such as building dip tanks and firebreaks, providing critical education, outreach and field training, getting fire equipment, and upgrading infrastructure and property. Such plans serve as a mechanism for community input and are key to identifying specific projects intended to mitigate fire risk and areas of concern in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, said Ilene Grossman, Community Wildfire Protection Plans project manager.

WUI is the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development. Communities within a half mile of the zone are included. WUI boundaries can be extended beyond the half mile to include resources like mauka forests and watersheds in need of better coordination and addressing of wildfire issues.

“WUI grant proposals can be written for up to $300,000 for each application period,” Grossman said. “We have been awarded five grants for various amounts since 2008 and assisted community partners in receiving over $200,000 from their own grant proposals.”

In Hawaii, fires have increased in size, frequency and intensity on all islands over the years, particularly as towns expand into formerly undeveloped places and areas of fallow, invasive or unmanaged vegetation, as well as human-caused fires, such as roadside ignitions, have increased. Firefighter agency records show fires start typically along roadways and are spread through unmanaged fuels in untended lands. Increases in wildfire pose threats not just to human health and safety, infrastructure and daily life, but also to agriculture, native ecosystems, cultural resources, watershed function and nearshore coastal resources, Grossman said.

“These plans are becoming increasingly important in Hawaii. They bring wildfire hazard information and planning and action opportunities to all who are affected, making it possible to address wildfire more effectively,” Grossman said. “As drought episodes increase and land uses continue to change, working at all levels to mitigate wildfire has become essential.”

Developing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan is similar to that of developing a community master plan as it requires collaboration from various agencies, landowners and stakeholders with diverse expertise, the gathering and analyzing of relevant data, identifying and prioritizing concerns, and establishing an action plan. Since October, Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization has held community meetings and given presentations to groups to gather input.

“There are no requirements for updating Community Wildfire Protection Plans, but we are updating these plans because they have lost community momentum,” Grossman said. “The projects and input are outdated and with predicted drought to follow this current vegetation growth, the fire hazard will likely be very high in the near future. We have decided that now is an important window of opportunity to update the plans and learn from, inspire, and support communities to reduce their hazard and increase their protective/preventative efforts.”

The organization drove the island’s roads and produced wildfire hazard assessments, which educate residents about the low, moderate and high hazards pertaining to 36 different criteria. Those assessments will be included in the updated plans, as well as the first-ever statewide wildfire history map showing ignitions between 2002-11.

“These plans are meant to be living documents and not something that sits on the shelf,” Grossman said.

The last South Kona plan, written in 2010, covered the 30-mile area between Kailua-Kona and Ka‘u. South Kona is at risk because of steep slopes, rough terrain, lots of fire-promoting fuels, recurring drought conditions, a history of human-caused fire starts and the closest water source being up to 20 miles away in some places.

While the bulk of wildfires begin in the WUI, some have occurred in the upland forested and grassland regions, such as the 1,800-acre wildfire that began Dec. 27, 2009, at Kealakekua Ranch and took weeks to extinguish.

Wildfire conversations typically revolve around pre-emptive planning and education for places people live. However, Wednesday, former politician and longtime community volunteer Virginia Isbell raised the issue of unmanaged vegetation on neighbors’ properties and asked what legally can be done. Grossman mentioned the possibility of getting a fuel abatement law similar to the one on Maui or pursuing fallow lands vegetation management and defensible space legislation.

Residents have until March 1 to provide input on the draft plans and can do so by calling the organization at 885-0900 or emailing admin@hawaiiwildfire.org.

“It can be very helpful to find out what specific projects people would like to see completed in their community, whether they be specific schools where wildfire education is needed, high-priority areas for fuel reduction, or specific areas where water resources and fuel breaks are needed,” Grossman said. “We, as an organization, do not start a project until we have assessed the needs of various agencies and community members.”

From the input, plans will be created, available for public review and comment in the spring, finalized, and sent to the proper officials. All plans are reviewed and signed off by the Hawaii County Fire Department chief, state Division of Forestry and Wildlife administrator and Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator, Grossman said. Plans must be completed by June, she added.

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To view previous plans or past projects, visit hawaiiwildfire.org.

Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at clucas-zenk@westhawaiitoday.com.

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