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3 strategies Maui can adopt from other states to help prevent dangerous wildfires

Volunteers helping those who lost homes in Lahaina stop to pray on a hillside. The town is surrounded by dry, invasive grasses which are highly flammable.
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Volunteers helping those who lost homes in Lahaina stop to pray on a hillside. The town is surrounded by dry, invasive grasses which are highly flammable.

As the community in West Maui begins a slow recovery after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in the last century, one of the biggest questions is how a similar tragedy can be prevented.

Hawaii may not have to look far. Other states, like California, have adopted strategies that are known to reduce the risk that a wildfire will spread.

Many of them are no secret to Hawaii state officials. The government's own reports have shown that West Maui is at severe risk for wildfire, its foothills covered in dry, invasive grasses that are highly flammable. Previous recommendations included improving evacuation plans, managing dry vegetation around towns and clearing defensible space around houses.

Other Western states have mandated those policies after their own histories with destructive wildfires. Despite the recommendations, Hawaii fire experts say little was accomplished to do wildfire prevention in West Maui. Like so many communities, it struggled to find funding to clear large areas of vegetation and maintain them.

No precautions are guaranteed to stop a fire, especially in extreme winds. However, fire experts say the tragedy shows communities cannot ignore their own warnings.

"My hope would be that what just happened in Hawaii is really a wakeup call, so that any state that has fire risk of this sort is planning ahead to keep their citizens safe," says Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

As Hawaii takes a close look at its wildfire policies, there are three core strategies it could adopt.

Use better evacuation technology

For many residents in downtown Lahaina, the only warning to leave was seeing the flames race towards their home. In the aftermath of the fire, many are angry that the town's network of warning sirens weren't turned on.

"If I would have heard the siren that morning, I would have at least prepared, packed something in my car, called my parents," says Alex Calma, a Lahaina resident who lost his home. Instead, he and his neighbors drove away with little time to spare, jamming one of the only roads out of town.

Government officials instead turned on the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which blasts a message to people's phones, like AMBER Alerts for missing children. Many residents NPR spoke to didn't receive it. High winds, power outages and flames took out the cell service network. A similar thing happened in California's deadly Camp Fire in 2018.

"Look at how often it doesn't work – how often cell phone towers like in Paradise and Maui get burned right away," says Thomas Cova, a professor of geography who studies evacuations at the University of Utah. "That's the first thing that happens is the fire burns the cell phone tower."

Maui officials defended their choice not to turn on the sirens, saying the public would have been confused. People, they say, associate the sirens with tsunami warnings and could have run into the hills instead. That's despite the fact that it was the direction the flames were coming from.

To clarify the alerts, a number of cities have installed new siren networks that can also broadcast voice messages, like Mill Valley, California, where wildfires are a danger. In Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, the sirens play pre-recorded messages to tell residents what kind of threat they're alerting about, like a volcano, tsunami or storm, then instruct residents to tune into the radio for more details.

Disaster response experts stress that cities need to have multiple strategies to alert and evacuate people safely, especially ones that don't rely entirely on cell networks.

Pass a requirement to clear flammable brush and grass

As one of the people who has worked to prevent fires near Lahaina, it's not easy for Gordon Firestein to look at the view from his house: a dark black burn scar and the blue Pacific Ocean beyond.

For years, Gordon Firestein has worked with neighbors to make Lahaina safer from wildfires. He's hopeful the state will pass mandatory policies to clear vegetation.
/ Lauren Sommer/NPR
Lauren Sommer/NPR
For years, Gordon Firestein has worked with neighbors to make Lahaina safer from wildfires. He's hopeful the state will pass mandatory policies to clear vegetation.

Once a California resident, Firestein moved to West Maui 15 years ago and found the golden hillsides were all too reminiscent of his home state. Former sugarcane fields have been abandoned and overrun with invasive grasses. He banded together with a few neighbors to join the FireWise program. Run by the non-profit National Fire Protection Association, it provides a blueprint for communities to become better prepared for wildfires.

Firestein says they've educated neighbors about trimming the dry vegetation directly around a home to create defensible space. But Hawaii doesn't have mandatory rules that compel homeowners to do it.

States like California require homeowners in high risk areas to clear brush and inspections are done by both city and state fire agencies. In San Diego, if a homeowner doesn't comply, the city hires a contractor to do the work and puts a lien on the property to recoup the cost.

"I certainly hope that's part of the post-fire process – that we begin to look seriously at California, for example, as a model," Firestein says.

Larger areas at the edges of towns also need to be cleared of dry grass to act as a buffer against fire. On the outskirts of Lahaina, rows of houses are nestled in the hills. After the fire, some residents said the problem had been ignored for years.

"We need some accountability," says Chris Arnold, a Lahaina resident who lost his home. "Give us some fire breaks and I don't want to hear any more excuses."

After the destruction in Lahaina, Hawaii fire expects say they're hopeful the state will take a hard look at its wildfire policies.
/ Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
Deanne Fitzmaurice for NPR
After the destruction in Lahaina, Hawaii fire expects say they're hopeful the state will take a hard look at its wildfire policies.

Almost a decade ago, a community protection plan was written for Western Maui, which found wildfire was an extreme risk there. It recommended managing invasive grasses, creating defensible space and working with private landowners to create fire breaks. Another Maui county report two years ago made similar recommendations.

Some of the projects were completed, but not the majority, especially given that grasses grow back and must be maintained every year. West Maui, like other fire-prone regions, has struggled to find the funding to manage vegetation.

"The scope and level and amount that needed to get done was never really reached, because we actually really never found funds or capacity to do the full scale of what we'd like to have done," says Elizabeth Pickett with the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a non-profit that helped write the plan.

Rebuild homes to resist wildfire embers

Residents who fled Lahaina describe leaving in a rain of embers from the sky. In most wildfires, houses catch on fire because of these embers, not because of the advancing flames.

Fire researchers have documented how embers can get caught on wood-shingled roofs and siding, fall into gutters with leaves or even get blown into attic vents, igniting the building from the inside.

California and a handful of other states have passed wildfire building codes, requiring new homes to use fire-resistant materials if they're built in risky areas. The rules cover roofs, siding, windows and ventilation, since attic vents can be protected by covering them with a fine mesh screen. Research shows for new construction, it's not substantially more expensive to build that way.

While residents in Lahaina will have the option to build this way, fire experts say using mandatory building codes ensures all new buildings have a better chance of surviving and are less likely to spread fire to other structures. For older homes that are already built, some communities offer home inspections to give homeowners a specific list of recommendations.

"Communities need to start investing in those strategies and perhaps recognizing that everyone is in this together, that people need to be given assistance to do these things," Wara says. " They also need to be pushed to take the steps that will protect the whole community from a wildfire."

Wildfire building codes have faced pushback in some states that have proposed them, especially from home building associations. Fire experts in Hawaii say they're hopeful that, given the heavy toll of Maui's fires, lawmakers will embrace change.

"I really want to believe that we will rally the way that we do so well as an island state and use this toward progress, improvement, and all the things that felt too big to deal with," Pickett says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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