The Wicked Problem of Wildfires in Hawaii and the Critical Role of Place-Based Environmental Knowledge of Firefighters Responding to Novel Fire Regimes

Gollin, Lisa X, PhD, University of Hawaii Manoa
Trauernicht, Clay, PhD, University of Hawaii Manoa

In Hawaii wildfire occurrence is growing exponentially. The proportion of land burned annually is equal to or exceeds rates on the continental US. Anthropogenic ignitions in the Wildland-Urban-Interface; invasion of nonnative, fire-prone grasses; and a warming, drying climate demands firefighters adapt to radically new variables. Orographic geography and microclimates add another layer of complexity to the Wicked Problem of Hawaii’s inflammatory environment. Systems for predicting fire behavior based on mainland models are insufficient for Hawaii where grasslands ignite and spread fire more quickly in conditions of high humidity unprecedented in tropical grasslands worldwide. Place-based-knowledge of island microenvironments is essential to containment strategies. Through ethnographic research with firefighters and discussions with paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys-ranchers)―de facto first-responders―we show the evolving oral history among firefighters adapting to novel fire regimes; local taxonomies of grasses and the grass-fire-cycle, microclimates, natural-cultural resource considerations and observations of environmental change suggesting new models for fragile island ecosystems.