Hawaii lawmakers address wildfire prevention with limited success

May 15, 2024

Legislative efforts to prevent future wildfires

Hawaii lawmakers have taken steps to combat wildfires, including a $20 million increase in the wildland firefighting budget and the reinstatement of the state fire marshal’s office, as reported by Honolulu Civil Beat.

However, out of more than 40 recommendations from the House Wildfire Prevention Working Group, only 15 made it into proposed legislation, with fewer passing this session.

Many of the unimplemented recommendations will fall to the new state fire marshal.

“We just wanted to take a first step by re-creating the position” and have the marshal “report back to us on what additional resources might be needed,” said Rep. Linda Ichiyama, co-chair of the House Wildfire Prevention Working Group.

The state fire marshal’s office, disbanded in 1979, will coordinate fire prevention activities across local agencies.

Funding and challenges for the new fire marshal’s office

The Legislature allocated $172,000 for the fire marshal’s office, covering the marshal’s salary, one administrative assistant, and operational costs.

Concerns have arisen about the adequacy of this funding.

Gary Lum, Administrative Specialist for the State Fire Council, stated: “I expect that’ll present a challenge for us to find a competent candidate.”

The council had suggested a higher salary for the marshal, noting that $120,000 is equivalent to a mid-level county fire captain’s salary.

Additional legislation under the marshal’s purview includes House Bill 1842, which increases arson penalties during heightened wildfire risks.

The bill classifies arson as a class C felony, carrying a fine of up to $10,000 and five years in prison.

Other measures include raising penalties for violating fire protection laws, with fines now up to $2,500 per day.

Broader efforts and unaddressed recommendations

Sen. Glenn Wakai, who introduced the fire marshal bill, emphasized ongoing efforts: “We learned a heck of a lot” about fire since August.

Recommendations that did not pass include restrictions on consumer fireworks, preventing electrical infrastructure from starting fires, and expanding the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s siren network.

Lum expressed disappointment over the failure to pass the fireworks restriction bill, given its potential to prevent wildfires.

The working group also suggested a tax increase for unmanaged lands, aimed at preventing land banking, which allows vegetation to become fire hazards.

This proposal, among others, required more time for legislative approval, according to Ichiyama.

Investments in Hawaii’s fire prevention and future plans

The state’s largest investment in fire prevention this year was a $23 million appropriation to Hawaii’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW).

This includes funds for hiring staff, equipment, and vegetation management.

Mike Walker, State Fire Protection Forester, praised the funding: “I was very happy to see [it] come in at the last minute.”

Additional allocations included a $10 million infusion for equipment upgrades and $1.5 million for 22 new permanent staff positions.

Senate Bill 3068 provided $3.5 million in federal funds for emergency equipment.

Lawmakers also funded a University of Hawaii project to map wildfire risks and improve forecasting technologies with a $1 million AI-driven platform.

Moving forward, remaining recommendations may be reconsidered in the 2025 legislative session.

The next report on the Lahaina fires, expected by year-end, may also contain policy recommendations, said Ichiyama.

FSJA comment

The legislative response to Hawaii’s wildfire crisis highlights the complexities of implementing comprehensive fire prevention measures.

While significant steps have been taken, including increased funding and the reinstatement of the state fire marshal, many recommendations remain unaddressed.

The allocation of $172,000 for the fire marshal’s office has raised concerns about the sufficiency of resources to attract qualified candidates and effectively manage fire prevention efforts.

The legislative focus on increasing penalties for arson and fire protection violations indicates a commitment to stricter enforcement.

The substantial investment in the Division of Forestry and Wildlife and the University of Hawaii’s AI-driven wildfire risk mapping project demonstrates a forward-thinking approach to wildfire prevention.

These initiatives, combined with potential future policy recommendations, suggest that while progress has been made, continuous efforts and adjustments will be essential to effectively mitigate wildfire risks in Hawaii.

Read Next

Subscribe Now