Wildfires like this week’s 6,700-acre blaze in Waialua represent “the fire of the future” a blaze in a generally remote area that tests the abilities of metropolitan departments accustomed to battling building fires.
“The problem facing the Honolulu Fire Department is the same one facing every growing community in the United States,” said Stacy Rogers, a professor of fire science at Honolulu Community College. “It’s a growing problem in the state of Hawai’i and it’s a growing problem nationally.”
The kind of hilly, rugged terrain involved in the Waialua brushfire combined with acres of dry fuel “demands a whole new kind of fire service,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety Ethics and Ecology, a nonprofit Oregon group.
“Every wildfire now has the potential to become an urban fire,” Ingalsbee said.
Experts from across the nation say municipal departments find themselves increasingly abandoning the “indirect attack” method of using bulldozers and hand tools to dig fire lines around a brushfire to more or less let it burn itself out.
Instead, as more homes spring up around open space such as the thousands of acres of dry brush near the North Shore that have been desiccated by this summer’s drought firefighters are often positioned in a “direct attack” right up against the flames, using little more than water, shovels and chainsaws, Ingalsbee said.
“It is more dangerous,” he said. “You’re putting flesh and blood firefighters between the unstoppable force of a wildfire and the unmovable force of homes.”
Other commanders sometimes pull back and position engine companies closer to homes to appease the homeowners, said Zeke Lunder, a spokesman for California-based North Tree Fire International, a firefighting consulting firm.
“Politicians like to park fire engines in the driveways of people who recently bought homes in undeveloped areas,” Lunder said. “It makes them feel good and it’s happening everywhere. The problem then is that they’re waiting for the fire to come to the community. The fires then get larger and threaten more homes. But who’s fighting the fire?”
In either choice, tackling a wildfire requires different skills than putting out a house or high-rise fire, Ingalsbee said.
“In an urban environment, you have access to endless amounts of water,” he said. “You have a single point and you just drown the fire with water. In a wild-land situation, especially one that’s threatening homes, a single flame front can simultaneously threaten dozens of homes and overwhelm the capacity of urban fire departments in a hurry. Wild-land fires are far more mobile and dynamic than a structure fire.”
TWO SETS OF GEAR
For at least 15 years, Honolulu firefighters have been trained in both urban and wildland techniques and are issued two sets of gear, said fire Capt. Frank Johnson.
They use heavier turnout coats, helmets and rubber boots for building fires, and light-weight coats, leather boots, chainsaws and shovels for wildfires, Johnson said.
“Every firefighter in the department has wildland gear,” Johnson said. “We’re all trained for high-rise fires, we’re all trained for wildfires. There may be trucks from town fighting a wildfire. But from recruit training back in the academy, we’re taught how to battle a wildland fire and how to fight a structure fire.”
A representative for Mayor Mufi Hannemann yesterday a city holiday did not respond to requests for comment about the firefighting issues involved in building homes in otherwise undeveloped areas of O’ahu.
The Wai’anae Coast has suffered from a series of brushfires in the last several years that have covered thousands of acres and come within yards of homes.
This week’s Waialua fire started Sunday below Poamoho Estate near the University of Hawai’i’s Experimental Farm near Kaukonahua Road. Some 20 residents had to be evacuated from Hukilau Loop and Otaki Camp near Hale’iwa. Many homes were left covered in soot.
At the same time that former sugar and pineapple lands have turned fallow and dry, the North Shore welcomes 2.4 million visitors per year and has seen recent spurts of expensive new homes, said Antya Miller, executive director of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce and a member of the North Shore Neighborhood Board.
“We need more fire stations and, just as importantly, the staffing to fill those fire stations with enough firefighters,” Miller said. “So far, the city and county isn’t keeping up with the infrastructure demands.”
City Councilmen Donovan Dela Cruz and Todd Apo on Wednesday introduced a bill designed to improve fire safety for agricultural areas of O’ahu, in part by requiring owners to keep their land free of combustible agricultural waste.
NO MORE AG LANDS
Dela Cruz represents the Wahiawa/North Shore area. “It’s obvious to everyone out there that if you have working ag lands, the fire doesn’t penetrate,” he said. “But we don’t have sugar anymore and we don’t have pineapple anymore. So now the fire literally gets just several feet from people’s homes.”
The bill, which also calls for the city to expedite funding to expand and relocate the Waialua fire station, has not been scheduled for a hearing.
And it does not specifically address HFD’s wildfire needs or tactics, Dela Cruz said.
“But when we hear the bill,” Dela Cruz said, “I’m sure the chief (Kenneth Silva) will be available to not only answer questions, but make recommendations on how we can better support the department. Because it is a concern.”
The Los Angeles County Fire Department has become a leader in what’s known in fire science circles as the “wildland/urban interface.”
“Every day we get some form of brushfire or grass fire in L.A. County that has the potential to turn into thousands of acres,” said Inspector Ron Haralson, a Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman.
The department’s 3,500 firefighters are responsible for a vast and diverse area of urban landscape and open space that encompasses 24,000 square miles.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department began more than 75 years ago as the fire and forestry warden for the county, but also developed urban firefighting techniques.
“It’s what we do,” Haralson said. “Some stations may have more expertise in high-rise or structure fires. But we’re all trained for wildfires.”
Every firefighter in the department from the chief on down carries dual sets of firefighting gear just like Honolulu firefighters.
“Down here in Hollywood where I am, chances are I’m not going to get a brushfire,” Haralson said. “But if we have a fire up in the Hollywood Hills, I have that gear and I’m ready.”
It’s a scenario that cities like Honolulu will face even more, said Lunder of North Tree Fire.
“As we build more and more homes in remote areas, it complicates firefighting more and more,” Lunder said. “It’s a problem we didn’t have to deal with before. But it’s become a really big issue in firefighting.”