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Lack Of Money And Staff Is Hindering Wildfire Code Enforcement In Hawaii

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Lack Of Money And Staff Is Hindering Wildfire Code Enforcement In Hawaii

Oct 03, 2023 | 9:32 am ET
By Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat
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The maintenance and placement of fire hydrants, along with a litany of other fire-related infrastructure, falls under Hawaii’s fire codes. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018)
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The maintenance and placement of fire hydrants, along with a litany of other fire-related infrastructure, falls under Hawaii’s fire codes. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018)

The fire codes designed to protect Hawaii are vast and comprehensive — and virtually impossible to implement entirely.

The codes include both the regulation of wildfire-related hazards and structural hazards.

But the county fire departments’ prevention bureaus that enforce the codes are so understaffed and underfunded that structural regulations, which make up the bulk of the codes, has taken precedence over wildfire regulation. 

The Honolulu Fire Department’s fire prevention bureau oversees code compliance at roughly 20,000 locations, according to former HFD prevention bureau chief Socrates Bratakos. And with just 15 inspectors, the department has little time or capacity to address wildfires, while also investigating fires and educating the public.

Now an administrator for the State Fire Council, Bratakos says the other counties have no more than half a dozen staff dedicated to inspection.

The consequence on Oahu is that codes relating to vegetation management and overgrown brush have predominantly been dealt with through a complaint-based process if at all.

“It’s a matter of resources and priority,” Bratakos said.

And without a State Fire Marshal’s Office, which in every other state conducts fire prevention and investigation, the counties have an even larger task.

Where The Wildfires Roam

The Hawaii State Fire Code and four county fire codes are amended forms of the National Fire Protection Association’s national fire code.

They all include a chapter dedicated to the wildland-urban interface, the area where human development meets rural landscapes.

That part of the code covers everything from wildfire prevention and planning to the regulation of vegetation around electrical power lines, which have been blamed for starting at least one of the Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui.

Besides staff and funding problems, enforcing codes in the wildland-urban interface is complicated because it crosses private and government properties, Hawaii County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd says.

Hawaii County has three fire code inspectors in its fire prevention bureau, so ensuring wildland-urban interface code compliance takes a backseat, especially when landowners refuse to comply and the county has few enforcement options, Todd says.

“We’ve run into the issue where they might lawyer up and grind things to a halt,” Todd said.

Maui, Kauai and Honolulu counties can issue non-compliance or violation notices or even place a lien on a property to force the the landowner to comply with regulations.

In other states, fire marshal’s offices are empowered to do that work and impose liens, fines and even arrest people.

For Oahu, following a months-long notification and citation process, the fire department must refer code violations to the Honolulu County Prosecutor’s Office.

“In practice that rarely, if ever, happens,” Bratakos said. “There’s not enough resources at either the fire department, the fire prevention bureau or even the prosecutor’s office to follow up.”

On Big Island, the mayor is the only one who can put a lien on a property and require the landowner to clear hazardous vegetation. But that means neighbors must band together to inform the mayor’s office.

That’s further complicated by the reality that many of Hawaii’s landowners may not live at their property, so it is difficult to even notify them, Todd says.

“Everyone is concerned about their neighbor’s yard now. It’s long been a concern for the fire department,” Todd said. “But on the Big Island, we’re talking about thousands of acres of fuel. It’s overwhelming.”

A Matter Of Interpretation

The fire codes are subject to change. The National Fire Prevention Association reworks the national fire code every three years, which the State Fire Council periodically amends and adopts for Hawaii.

The counties then do the same, amending and adopting the state code.

Fire code inspectors then interpret the code on a daily basis as they do their work.

All county codes, except on the Big Island, have additional measures outside of the wildland-urban interface chapter that call for landowners to manage flammable vegetation and combustable growth on their properties, including creating firebreaks within 30 feet of buildings or structures in fire-hazard areas.

Such a code becomes complicated on Oahu because of its housing density and property sizes, HFD Fire Capt. Jeffrey Roache says.

“It has to pass the eye test in a way,” Roache said. “There is a degree of interpretation required.”

The code allows for some interpretation, though Roache says there needs to be more specificity, especially when it comes to vegetation management.

The Honolulu fire prevention bureau is looking into how to bolster the codes to account for the island’s needs, Roache says.

Structural fire codes need to be better addressed in light of wildfire because the state’s housing stock has been constructed without consideration of that risk, according to Elizabeth Pickett, Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization co-executive director.

That then raises the question about planning and permitting, for old and new development projects, Pickett says.

“A really powerful way to institutionalize safety is to work through standards and codes,” Pickett said. “Fire is here to stay and it’s time to invest and proactively inspect.”

Following A Fighting Model

Fire prevention makes up between 2% and 4% of the four counties’ fire and public safety budgets.

That funding ratio is in keeping with the rest of the U.S., where 3% is the average amount set aside for prevention on the county level.

In 2022, that left each county with fire prevention funding ranging from $887,000 on the Big Island to $5.6 million in Honolulu to inspect for code compliance, investigate fires and educate the public, among other things. 

“It fits with the American model. I don’t necessarily know that that’s the best model,” Todd said.

There has been a shift toward a prevention-heavy funding model internationally, which Todd says he is looking into for Hawaii County.

That includes the creation of a position in the fire prevention bureau dedicated to the wildland-urban interface, he says.

Still, finding the money for fire prevention is a problem in every county in Hawaii.

“Even our fire department on the suppression side is staffed at a very low level,” Todd said.