After Maui, Hawaii lawmakers are providing funding for firefighting equipment and a state firefighter

Hawaii lawmakers on Wednesday appropriated funding for more firefighting equipment and a state firefighter after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century ripped through Maui's historic town of Lahaina, exposing deficiencies in the state's preparedness for such blazes.

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

Climate change has worsened Hawaii's drought, drying out the archipelago's vegetation and increasing the risk of destructive fires. Wildfires used to be rare in Hawaii, but in recent years their frequency has increased.

Last year, just months after the Maui fire, a wildfire burned a large portion of the Oahu Forest National Wildlife Refuge about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Honolulu.

“I think the biggest game changer now is that Hawaii is considered a wildfire state,” Rep. Kyle Yamashita, chairman 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 curb fuel consumption and things like that.”

The new funding includes:

1. $10 million for equipment such as bulldozers, fire trucks and water tanks for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which looks after national forests.

2. $1.4 million for the department to hire 22 employees, including a forest ranger, mechanic and heavy equipment operator to protect against fires.

3. $7.4 million for the department to combat invasive grasses and other vegetation that fuel fires, restore native plants in fire-burned areas and work with communities to prevent wildfires.

4. $172,000 for a state firefighter, assistant and training. The new fire marshal would review and assess fire risk in the state and work with county authorities to enforce the state's fire regulations. Since 1979, when Hawaii abolished the position of state firefighter, these duties have been carried out by a council of fire chiefs from Hawaii's four main districts and the state fire departments. Currently, Hawaii is the only state without a state firefighter.

5. $1 million for the University of Hawaii to develop a wildfire prediction system using artificial intelligence.

Lawmakers also appropriated $1 billion to cover various costs caused by the Lahaina disaster, including $500 million for emergency housing for displaced residents and $124 million in rental assistance for those ineligible for federal aid Emergency Management Agency have.

The budget includes $65 million for a victim assistance fund set up for those who have lost family members or suffered serious injuries. Hawaiian Electric Industries, landowner Kamehameha Schools and Maui County also contribute to the fund.

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

“You've seen the maps – the fire zones, the sea level rise, there's always the threat of a hurricane,” Saiki told reporters. “We have to learn to deal with it and prevent losses, mitigate losses and just be prepared for the future.”

The cause of the Lahaina wildfire remains under investigation. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is expected to issue a report on the cause before the fire's first anniversary.

Anna Harden

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