In wake of Lahaina disaster, state pledging to beef up fire prevention efforts

The Lahaina fire was destructive and deadly in part because roads were overgrown and escape routes were blocked.
Published: Oct. 5, 2023 at 5:42 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 6, 2023 at 4:42 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Lahaina fire was destructive and deadly in part because roads were overgrown and escape routes were blocked.

The state Department of Transportation is now bolstering wildfire prevention efforts by building firebreaks for the counties and promising to do a better job cutting back growth along highways.

Kili Drive in Makaha is designated as an evacuation route from the valley.

On Thursday, an excavator brought down a 50-foot Kiawe tree that cracked loudly as its boughs were broken. The work is to ensure if a fire comes through people can escape.

Even though it’s a private road — not a state highway — the Department of Transportation is paying the contractor $295,000 to clear a 30-foot firebreak on either side of the road from Farrington Highway to the Makaha Towers. The project was requested by the Honolulu Fire Department.

DOT spokesperson Shelly Kunishige said the state made the offer to all the counties.

“We’re working with the county fire departments,” she said. “To clear the areas they’ve identified as priority for vegetation management.”

SPECIAL SECTION: Maui Wildfires Disaster

Another new DOT firebreak protects the Ka Makana Alii shopping center and nearby Verona Village in Ewa.

During the Lahaina fire downed utility poles and flaming overgrowth ignited buildings and blocked Lahaina evacuation routes. High grass along the Lahaina bypass and Honoapiilani Highway, evident in photos taken before the fire, likely helped the fire jump the highways.

Poor vegetation management is one reason the state and Maui County are being sued, according the fire victims’ attorney Lance Collins.

“As a large landowner in the way that the state neglected to properly manage its lands. I mean, that’s, that’s a pretty major issue with respect to the cause of the fire,” Collins said.

State Transportation Director Ed Sniffen initiated the firebreak partnership and Kunishige said he also directed his department to change its priorities to consider fire safety in planning roadside brush removal.

“So, for in most cases, when we clear our rights-of-way, it’s to preserve line of sight for vehicles,” she said. “So this is typically not something we’ve done in the past.”

Also unusual is the department’s willingness to expand its firebreak program into areas not under its jurisdiction, which is exciting to West Oahu community activist Ed Werner.

He is asking DOT to clear out overgrowth in the Nanakuli Homesteads subdivision.

“I think it’s amazing, it’s great. For you know, the state to step up,” he said, calling on other agencies to take similar initiative.

“DHHL gotta kick it up, City, gotta kick it up, too,” Werner said. “If we get three agencies get involved, we can get more done.”

And there is a lot to be done with hundreds of miles of roads where tinder-draw foliage surrounds utility poles, like along Farrington Highway — the primary access, and evacuation route, from Leeward Oahu.

“I nervous. I really nervous,” Werner said. “And, you know, our officials should be nervous, too. Our government should be really nervous.”

For now, the work is being paid for out of the state highway fund, which is chronically underfunded. Officials said other sources, including federal funds, may be needed as the list of firebreak requests increases.