Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on November 1, 2018.

Common Ground

How a wildfire group in Hawaii bridged a class divide to address a local fire hazard

As this year’s summer wildfires spread across the landscapes of California and elsewhere, overwhelming an array of community preparedness and organizing efforts, they once again proved the adage that disaster does not respect jurisdictional or socio-economic boundaries.

In our work to engage communities with the information and knowledge they need to face wildfire, we need to make sure we aren’t just talking to the residents who may already be well organized and able to act on those messages. This is true for the federal government’s “Fire Adapted Communities” concept as well as for the proposed NFPA 1300, Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development.

This is not an easy task, but work by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO) offers a great example of positive community engagement. As Elizabeth Picket, HWMO’s executive director, shared with me, it also illustrates how we can reach the people most at risk, and most often forgotten about, in wildfires.

The northern region of the “big” Island of Hawai’i gets the least precipitation in the entire state, a feature that comes with benefits as well as drawbacks. The lack of rain means minimal runoff into the ocean, resulting in crystal-clear water around the local coral reefs. But the dryness is also a factor in the wildfire risk; the area’s agricultural history has left it with few native plants, and it has been invaded by fire-prone grasses.

Social ecology is as important as fire ecology. The clear ocean water is a major attraction for the local resorts, as well as for the wealthy outsiders who have built high-end homes. This wealth borders longtime residents who arrived when land was cheap because there was no water. This less affluent population is dependent on the service economy and bears the burden of living in a remote area of a remote state. Picket told me that the post-colonial and plantation experiences of these people have bred a resentment of local government and outside experts. It all makes for a tough landscape to build civic engagement.

For HWMO, the key is community organizing. Progress comes through listening to what is important to the people who are at risk. What HWMO heard from the neighboring communities of Kohala Waterfront and Honokoa was a desire to manage wildfire-induced soil erosion, because both groups care about the quality of the local ocean water.

Kohala Waterfront is a gated community of affluent homeowners. Residents understood the fire risk, and HWMO worked with them in their initial landscaping by educating them on reintroducing native plants and fire prevention. The expansion of an access trail to permit a second egress bonded Kohala with Honokoa, part of the state’s Hawaiian homelands that are held in trust for native Hawaiians who can receive one acre of land as a return of the land to the native people. Development is varied in Honokoa, but a strong cultural revitalization is occurring, including work to reestablish native landscape and stream restoration. HWMO dovetailed this existing work with a fire prevention focus and built a positive relationship over time that tries to reflect the local effort first.

It is important for safety professionals to remember that each community is different and should be approached as such. HWMO achieves this by honoring what communities have already done, as well as their existing capacity, to build risk reduction. It’s important to meet people where they meet, learn about what is already working, what motivates them, and build from there. For HWMO, the Firewise USA® program plays a strong role in this dynamic, as both Kohala Waterfront and Honokoa are recognized communities, and now work collaboratively to share the lessons they’re learning.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler