When there’s a drought, watch out (for wildfires)

by Sharon Higa | May 31, 2022

Over a year ago, I was among shocked onlookers as a wildfire burned fiercely on the slopes of Waahila Ridge above the UH Manoa campus. As daylight slipped into evening, helicopters continued to fly above dropping their load to contain and quench the flames. The wildfire was eventually extinguished, thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters, leaving only a blackened hillside as a stark reminder of the incident.

Wildfires are not a new threat, but they are a growing occurrence in Hawaii due to episodic drought conditions, spread of invasive fire-prone grasses and human-caused accidental, as well intentional, ignitions. That’s why Hawaiian Electric has added a new section on wildfire prevention and mitigation in the updated Handbook for Emergency Preparedness, available free at hawaiianelectric.com/prepare.

The Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, which works with communities across Hawaii on proactive and collaborative wildfire prevention, mitigation and planning activities, served as our subject matter expert. HWMO reminds us that the more information we know the better prepared we can be especially as wildfires can and do occur at any time of the year, on the dry leeward and even lush windward sides of all the islands.

One of the first things you can do is be aware of the weather. Over the long-term, rain doesn’t alleviate the risk as it grows more vegetation that eventually dries out and adds fuel to the already dry landscape. Pay attention to your surroundings, especially when the vegetation becomes dry, turns yellow, brown and gray.

Be aware of dry landscapes that can become fuel for wildfires. Photo courtesy of Kaala Farm.

Fire risk increases when it’s hot, dry and windy, so do refrain from activities that could start a spark — such as an open barbeque pit, campfire and fireworks — until it’s safer.

Around your home, clear any dead and dying vegetation and leaves around your yard and the entire perimeter and structure of your home. Keep grass short and separated by about 10 feet from lower tree branches to reduce the chance of “ladder fuels” which are fire pathways from the ground up to tree canopies.

Keep your yard and plants watered or consider planting drought-tolerant native plants and succulents, which will help reduce maintenance, save water and money, and mitigate fire risk.

Native plants like the pohinahina (left), naupaka kahakai (center) and milo (right) found in xeriscape gardens help reduce fire risk while conserving water and reducing maintenance.

Move any combustibles away from your home and don’t store flammable materials under or near your house. Screen your lanai, vents and around the bottom of your home if on a post or pier to prevent embers from entering the structure.

Develop and practice a family evacuation plan that includes your pets and any neighbors that might need assistance. Prepare an evacuation kit that covers the needs of family members and pets.

If a wildfire occurs in your area, the safest thing you can do is leave well in advance of an evacuation order. If asked to evacuate, leave as early as possible to give you and your family the best chance of survival while helping clear roads of congestion so firefighters and first responders can do their jobs safely.

Before the next major land wildfire occurs, let’s all do our part to ensure the safety of our families, neighbors, pets and community through advance planning, understanding and preparation.

To learn more about HWMO, visit hawaiiwildfire.org.

Sharon Higa is a senior communications consultant at Hawaiian Electric Company.

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Established in 1891, Hawaiian Electric is committed to empowering its customers and communities by providing affordable, reliable, clean and sustainable energy.