Challenges to Rapid Wildfire Containment in Hawaii

The goal of this project was to better understand the burden placed on Hawai‘i’s firefighters by increases in the prevalence of wildland fire in recent decades.  More specifically, we sought to (i) identify the primary challenges to rapid containment of wildfires in Hawaii and (ii) synthesize recommendations to improve the capacity of fire response agencies and minimize wildfire impacts.  To accomplish these objectives, we conducted in-depth interviews with 15 Incident Commanders across county, state, and federal fire response agencies, asking for detailed information on the state of wildfire suppression in Hawaii, how conditions have changed in recent decades, and to identify strategies to improve wildfire containment.

The lack of available personnel and equipment, difficult terrain, and increased development in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) were also identified as posing significant challenges to wildfire response.  In addition, high variability in climate and weather and novel fuel types, especially the predominance of nonnative grasses, limit the utility of firefighting technologies developed for ecosystems in the continental US such as fire danger rating systems and fire spread models.  This highlights the value of local knowledge of fuels, weather, and associated fire behavior for informing wildfire response.

The majority of project participants identified grassland expansion and the decline of ranching and agricultural operations as serious problems due to fuels accumulation in fallow lands and the decreased availability of resources such as water storage and bulldozers.  In addition, several senior ICs identified the need for more research on human dimensions with respect to improving public outreach to limit ignitions.  The most frequent recommendations to improve suppression capacity were to (i) continue and increase wildland fire training opportunities for firefighters to promote interagency collaboration; (ii) expand pre-suppression efforts including building and maintaining firebreaks, preparing landowners, and mapping resources, and (iii) increase the availability of personnel and appropriate wildland equipment for suppression efforts.

The full report can be found here (11MB file):