Waianae farmer Shermaih “Bulla” Iaea feels the risks of wildfire every summer that comes around.
His farm, nestled in the valley, is flanked by acres of flammable, invasive guinea grasses and brush — all of it turned brown since summer. By July, it becomes a potential source of fuel for wildfires.
In 2016, the fire burned about 30 feet into the back side of his property. In 2018, it scorched the land and destroyed his farm, including all of his aquaponics and farming equipment, along with 36 beloved mango trees — and 20 years of work.
All that remained were his home and tractor.
“I know what those Lahaina guys are going through,” he said one recent morning while surveying his land, with his dog Kia trotting alongside him.
He was lucky, as four of nine working farms at the state’s 150-acre Waianae Agricultural Park suffered total losses, according to the state Department of Agriculture. All 17 lots, some of which were still vacant, suffered damage.
Iaea, owner of Kahuawai Farms, says his neighbors were having a barbecue when the fire broke out. They survived, but lost their home and their livelihood — a thriving palm farm — to the fire.
The August 2018 brushfires were among the worst in recent history, burning thousands of acres, including more than 1,500 acres of the state forest reserve, and threatening homes and schools.
But those weren’t the only fires the community has been through. Iaea said he’s experienced fires every other year coming from above as well as below the farm.
As a fireman, he battled fires that started in these valleys, oftentimes because there are no police in the area and vagrants or campers spark the fires. One year, it was due to arson below.
“When you’re talking about 40, 50 mph winds, all it takes is one house,” he said. “Once one house catches, 40, 50 mph, it will commit … and then that’s the start of conflagration and that’s what happened in Lahaina.”
The potential damage from just one ignition has those who’ve been through the trauma living on edge.
Bringing in sheep
Knowing the potential for another fire, he decided to take initiative.
With a grant from the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization he got six sheep in 2020, including a mix of Dorper and Barbados black belly sheep.
There are now 14 total, and the sheep do what they do best — efficiently munching down the grasses along an access road in the easement above his farm as well as the invasive haole koa. The strategy is called targeted grazing.
Iaea, an aquaculturist, may not have envisioned sheep when he started out, but now he’s grateful to have them.
He currently has the sheep corraled on two acres alongside the road, where they have done their job, and plans to move them to the other side soon after building a fence. There, he expects them to remove the grass up to the edge of Kawiwi Ridge.
This creates a firebreak, he said, and prevents fires from traveling up or down the hillside. It’s a good complement to a natural rock culvert, also a firebreak, that already runs across the property.
A firebreak is basically cleared or plowed land that presents a barrier to slow or stop a brushfire.
Hawaii needs hundreds of more miles of them, according to Hawaii Wildfire in a 2019 report. A network of these firebreaks is needed to protect communities and environmental resources.
But even a patchwork of reduced fuel can significantly slow the spread of wildfire across a landscape, said Hawaii Wildfire in the report.
In Hawaii, almost all wildfires, 99%, are sparked by people, according to the nonprofit, and the majority are accidental, whether it be hot exhaust on dry grass, cigarettes, machinery sparks, fireworks or arcing power lines.
A map created by Clay Trauernicht, a fire and ecosystems specialist at the University of Hawaii, shows the Waianae area as a “hot spot” due to its high density of ignitions per square mile.
Waianae has the highest, most persistent, year-round risk on the west side, he said, due to the high ignition frequency, dry conditions and fuels.
Fires follow fuel in the form of invasive grasses, which become flammable during drought. Waianae’s landscape is full of guinea grass, buffelgrass and haole koa, allowing fires to spread rapidly.
Trauernicht considers vegetation the most problematic issue in fire management as communities and forests are increasingly surrounded by fire-prone grasslands — about a million acres of them statewide.
Studies have pointed to targeted grazing as a cost- effective, efficient way to manage vegetation without herbicides. It’s taken hold in California, where goats and sheep are regularly deployed to clear out fire-prone brush along hillsides.
In Hawaii, the idea of contract grazing is still relatively new. Some solar companies pay for sheep grazing to maintain grass at their solar farms. Many landowners use heavy machinery or manual weed- whacking services, and others use herbicides.
Over the past five years, Iaea has rebuilt his farm with aquaponic systems, dragonfruit, limes and taro.
He’s motivated to protect his farm, but also thought if he brought in the sheep to create an example of a firebreak, farms above him might do the same.
“After I saw this area here, I knew that if we remove the fuel from here, we can stop the fire from going either way,” he said.
Above the easement is more land — former ranchland — that belongs to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and above that, more farms.
At the edge of the fenceline, Iaea planted a row of dragonfruit, which he said worked as a “green strip” at his own farm, helping to prevent the spread of fire.
As part of his ongoing project, Iaea continues culling down remaining kiawe trees, which he plans to replace with native, drought- resistant wiliwili trees. When on fire, dry kiawe trees can be dangerous because the flames go vertical and embers rise, he said. Add the wind, and they can travel several hundred feet.
Looking out across the valley, Iaea is concerned not only for all of the farmers, but for all of the family homes in the area, particularly Hawaiian homesteads.
Like Lahaina, they are in what is called a “wildland- urban interface,” or the area where housing intermingles with undeveloped wildland vegetation in the form of fallow grasslands that have become potential tinderboxes.
“The wildland-urban interface surrounds the Waianae homestead,” he said. “If you take an aerial photo, all of that dry grass area surrounds the homesteads.”
The two hottest spots for fires on Oahu are right in the Waianae and Nanakuli valleys, he said, which are also where Hawaiian homesteads are located, and they, too, should be protected.
Fire hot spots
Iaea is part of a group of community members that meets virtually every month, moderated by Hawaii Wildfire, to discuss potential wildfires.
Even as a firefighter, Iaea said he knew Hawaii experienced more fires than average in the U.S.
He said the Waianae fire station was among the top 50 busiest stations in the U.S. for fire responses during his 28-year career.
“Being small-town Waianae, that’s pretty substantial,” he said. “You’re competing against New York City and Los Angeles. So the experience of having the fires come close to your house is ingrained in everybody’s head.”
Last year, the Honolulu Fire Department responded to over 300 fires on the west side of Oahu. This summer, there have been more than a dozen along the Waianae coast and inner valley, as well as in Ewa Beach, Kapolei and Makakilo.
Drought has worsened across Hawaii, with more than 81% of the Hawaiian islands now in moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The conditions are expected to continue for the next few months.
In 2018, there were simultaneous fires burning in three valleys, said Iaea — in Makaha, Waianae, and Nanakuli.
Once the two fire stations in Waianae and Nanakuli have been deployed, the next station out is in Kapolei, Waipahu or farther out in Pearl City. They would need at least half an hour to get to Waianae, he said, and by then, it’s probably too late.
“When you’ve got three valleys burning at once,” he said, “those assets are so limited, and the response time is so long that you’re going to have a tragedy. If you get 40 to 50 mph (winds), you’re on your own and it’s been that way for a long time.”
He envisions one day, there will be an organization that brings in sheep to create fire breaks as a service for all communities impacted, including the Hawaiian homesteads where vulnerable families live.
“A lot of times, when you try to explain, they can’t see it,” he said. “One of the persons that really helped me in the beginning said, ‘You’ve got to build it and then show it.’”