United States

After Maui, Hawaii Lawmakers Budget Funds For Firefighting Equipment And A State Fire Marshal

After the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century devastated Maui, Hawaii lawmakers have appropriated significant funding to bolster the state's firefighting capabilities, including new equipment, staff, and a state fire marshal position that Hawaii previously lacked. The measures aim to improve Hawaii's preparedness and response to the growing threat of wildfires driven by climate change.

Hawaii lawmakers budget funds for firefighting equipment and a state fire marshal Photo: AP

Hawaii lawmakers on Wednesday appropriated funds for more firefighting equipment and a state fire marshal after the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century ripped through the historic Maui town of Lahaina and exposed shortcomings in the state's readiness for such flames.

The House and Senate passed the measures during their first legislative session since the August 8 wildfire killed 101 people. They now go to Gov. Josh Green for his consideration.

Climate change has been boosting drought in Hawaii, drying the archipelago's vegetation and increasing the risks of destructive blazes. Wildfires were once rare in Hawaii but they have grown in frequency in recent years.

Last year, just months after the Maui blaze, a wildfire burned a large part of the about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Honolulu.

“I think that the biggest game changer is now, Hawaii is viewed as a wildfire state," Rep. Kyle Yamashita, the chairperson of the House Finance Committee, told reporters after the bills passed. “So we have to change our policies and procedures and what our departments have to do to mitigate some of the fuel and those kind of different things.”

New funding includes:

1. USD 10 million for equipment like bulldozers, fire engines and water tanks for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which cares for state forests.

2. USD 1.4 million for the department to hire 22 staff, including a forester, mechanics and heavy equipment operators to protect against fires.

3. USD 7.4 million for the department to manage invasive grasses and other vegetation that fuels fires, restore native plants in areas burned by fire and work with communities to prevent wildfires.

4. USD 172,000 for a state fire marshal, an assistant and training. The new fire marshal would review and assess fire risk in the state and work with county agencies to enforce the state fire code. These duties have been handled by a council of the fire chiefs from Hawaii's four main counties and state fire agencies since 1979, when Hawaii abolished the state fire marshal position. Currently Hawaii is the only state without a state fire marshal.

5. USD 1 million for the University of Hawaii to develop a wildfire forecast system with the help of artificial intelligence.

Lawmakers also appropriated USD 1 billion to cover various costs stemming from the Lahaina disaster, including USD 500 million for emergency housing for displaced residents and USD 124 million in rental assistance for those ineligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The budget includes USD 65 million for a victims relief fund established for those who lost family members or suffered severe injury. Hawaiian Electric Industries, landowner Kamehameha Schools and Maui County are also contributing to the fund.

House Speaker Scott Saiki, a Democrat, said his caucus addressed Maui's immediate needs and then the state's broader needs to face climate change.

“You've seen the maps - the fire zones, sea level rise, there's always a risk of hurricane,” Saiki told reporters. "We need to learn how to deal with with these and prevent losses, mitigate losses, and just be prepared for the future.”

The cause of the Lahaina wildfire is still under investigation. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is expected to produce a report on the cause before the one-year anniversary of the blaze.