HONOLULU (KHON2) — Following the devastating Lahaina fire on Aug. 8, House Speaker Scott Saiki established an interim house working group to look into wildfire issues for legislative recommendations for the 2024 session.
Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You
Testimony came in from all the county fire departments, residents and Hawaiian Electric too.
“It went well, I think the biggest takeaway is the public acknowledged that in 60 days we put together a comprehensive report with 42 findings to draft and potentially steer future legislation,” said Rep. Darius Kila (D) Co-Chair of the Wildfire Working Prevention Group.
Most testimony recommended the state doing something about the invasive plants, others wanted to see power lines put underground, and asked whether power would be shut off during red flag warnings.
Potential 2024 legislative session proposals include funding for a state fire marshal, and increasing fines and penalties during red flag warnings for people who have open fires.
HECO provided written testimony stating,
“Hawaiian Electric supports the work of the Wildfire Prevention Working Group
and believes their report provides a foundation for evaluating the scope of the emerging
wildfire threat in Hawaii. Up to 45,000 acres are burned by wildfires each year in Hawaii,
according to research by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a startling
number on a small chain of islands.
The report states that “bold action is required,” and the Company believes the working group’s comprehensive list of recommendations outlines key areas of emphasis that will be helpful in developing legislation that will help keep communities safe. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to wildfire risks, and this draft report provides guidance on various solutions to consider.
The working group’s conclusions and recommendations are aligned with
Hawaiian Electric’s priorities and action steps described in our Wildfire Safety Strategy,
including development of best practices on prevention of ignition during extreme
weather conditions and prioritizing selective hardening of lines or other protective
measures for infrastructure in fire risk hazard areas.
The Company appreciates the emphasis the working group placed on the
importance of land management practices that reduce the availability of fuel and also
the raising of public awareness that accidental ignitions by people are the leading cause of wildfires in Hawai‘i. The increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events,
including catastrophic wildfires, are challenging our customers and the communities we
Hawaiian Electric first began developing its Wildfire Safety Strategy in 2019 and
continues to adapt it to address the elevated risks in Hawai‘i. On November 3, 2023, the
Company described its three-phase safety strategy, which includes actions it is taking
when weather conditions indicate the potential for fires in high-risk areas.
Additionally, Hawaiian Electric is advancing work on its $190 million grid
resilience plan to harden against wildfires, hurricanes, tsunami, and flooding, and to
adapt to climate change impacts. Half of this multi-year program is to be paid by the
federal government with the other half matched by customers, pending approval by the
Public Utilities Commission.
Hawaiian Electric has also begun discussions with government, emergency
response, and community stakeholders to determine how a Public Safety Power Shutoff
(PSPS) program can be designed and implemented in a way that is appropriate for
each county in the state. A PSPS, which is typically preceded by a “Red Flag Warning”
or some other notification issued by the National Weather Service, would shut off power
in certain areas before extreme weather events as an additional means to reduce the
risk of a wildfire. However, before such a program is implemented – a community must
understand that its electricity will remain off for an indefinite period of time.
We appreciate the thoughtful overview by the Wildfire Prevention Working Group
and believe it provides helpful direction to those who will be prioritizing strategy and
action in the 2024 Legislative Session. Hawaiian Electric will continue to work closely with legislators and the community, as well as regulators and other stakeholders to
develop and implement strategies to keep our communities safe.
Accordingly, Hawaiian Electric supports the findings in the Wildfire Prevention
Working Group’s draft report.”
The draft report stated Hawaii ranks at the bottom when it comes to funding for wildfires, which will also be looked at in 2024.
The state department of transportation and the Honolulu Fire Department announced a collaboration to mitigate wildfire risks by removing brush in high-risk areas. KHON2 asked for an update on other high-risk areas and where brushed had been removed, but didn’t hear back.
“The Hawaii DOT is probably going to be seeking recurring funding for wildfire mitigation amongst our state roadways,” Rep. Kila said. “We’ve historically underfunded these things, now let this be the lesson we’re going to fund things moving forward.”
Another discussion will be holding private land owners accountable for maintaining their land, and using sheep and goats as natural ways to remove brush in certain areas.
KHON2 met up with Tristan Kiehl on Friday. His team team was brought in from Northern California to secure the edge of the Mililani fire.
Kiehl said he battles about 20 wildfires every year.
“I think the ferns was the main carrier of this fire,” Kiehl, supervisor of Six Rivers National Forest’s Crew 20 WFM said. He said the climate with rain and sunny conditions gives vegetation the boost is needs to continue growing, especially in hard to reach areas.
In his short time here, Kiehl said Hawaii is unique and could be better prepared.
“We have a mandate of 100-foot clearance around our structures in California, and then when it comes to preparedness for evacuations, we have evacuation plans associated to California, like a ready set go method is what we use. And then when it comes to the responders and everything like that we have cooperation with all entities that might respond to an incident,” he added.
He said lightning is a factor in most California fires, but he said a spark or ember from camp fires, along with car crashes and even arsonists can also be to blame.
He said signs on how to properly put out a campfire could help too.