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Fired up about data mapping

Fire in Hawaii
Photo courtesy of Dr. Trauernicht for the Pacific Fire Exchange, a consortium of federal, state, and local partners he helps to coordinate.

Listen to Clay Trauernicht discuss his passion, and you’ll realize you haven’t been paying enough attention to wildfires in Hawai‘i. Fortunately, with the help of Tomoaki Miura’s GIS data-mapping project, he’s created a website and interactive map to help address this issue.

Many may not realize wildland fires are a serious and growing problem in the Islands. But data compiled by the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, which Trauernicht used to create the map, show a trend long suspected by fire responders and land managers: though the land area affected is much smaller than in states more associated with forest fires, the percentage of land area is approximately equal—some years even higher. On average, over 1,000 ignitions involve more than 17,000 acres a year. “We’re running off a cliff in terms of wildfires in this state,” he warns.

Historically wildfires haven’t gotten much publicity in Hawai‘i, though, and resources have been correspondingly lacking. There are no specially dedicated wildfire fighters, except on military bases and at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park; all other crews combine this duty with their full-time day jobs.

Applying for funding—for prevention, management, and recovery—is an important use for the Hawaii State Wildfire History website), which shows ignitions on all islands by location, land area, and date. State and county agencies can use the information to petition for support, while individual towns or communities need it to develop Community Wildfire Protection Plans. These justify federal funding for risk mitigation (e.g., fire breaks) and infrastructure like access routes and helicopter dip tanks for dumping water on the flames.

Miura is excited at the potential uses of the map, the first to go public of several projects using the powerful data-mapping infrastructure he and his team have developed. “We wanted to provide a service to researchers and extension specialists in the college,” he explains, because the maps created can then be utilized by the larger community.

As Trauernicht points out, the emerging pattern of ignitions confirms that, unlike on the Mainland, almost all are caused by humans. And that just may be the greatest benefit of the map—because knowing the effects of our behavior is the first step to changing it.

Source:  UH Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture, 2014 Quarter One Impact Report.  Available online here.