In "Partner Perspectives" we get to know Assistant Chief of Operations Darwin Okinaka who started out as a responder for Hawai‘i County Fire Department and is now a community liason with landowners and partners after the 2021 Mana Road fire, one of Hawai‘i's largest in history. (The interview was conducted and edited by Melissa Chimera)

Name and Role: Darwin Okinaka, Assistant Fire Chief of Emergency Operations, Hawai‘i County Fire Department for nearly 23 years.

What are the most common to most unusual emergency responses in Hawai‘i County?

It's like anywhere in the nation. 85-90% of our call volume is emergency services. And our department manages the ambulance services for our county. Then we have structure and wildland fires. After the recent Mana Road fire, we’ve put in a lot more effort in terms of wildfire mitigation. We also deal with hazardous materials and rescues.


Like ocean safety rescue? Or people falling into a ravine somewhere–you guys would send people to help if it's on county land?


No matter what land it is–whether it's on ocean or on land–we respond. Our department is the primary response agency for nearly all emergencies. If it’s in a national park they are the primary responder, but more than likely they will be calling us, especially for ambulance services. Anything on the ocean, we co-respond with the coastguard.


Wow, that's pretty broad. You have to know how to operate in the ocean, within structural fires, within the wildland fires, and then in the topography and terrain. Tell me more about the Mana Road fire and how that maybe shifted your perspective.


When I started in this position in 2018, I got to know Nani and Elizabeth in Hawai`i Wildfire and eventually the PFX program. And working with them and our coordinating group, this was huge–in terms of working with partner agencies (Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Pohakuloa Training Area and the National Park). Prior to that it was just me responding to fires, versus now being on the management side serving as the point of contact with different agencies. I wasn’t at Mana Road fire when it started. Prior to that, the last big fire was the 2018 Waikoloa fire across 18,000 acres. We don’t get the large fires often. Historically, those have gone through vacant land. The Mana Road fire started in pasture lands and went through Hawai‘ian Homelands. I saw the need for the community to be more resilient and more prepared, along with the fact that the Fire Department isn’t going to be able to put everything out especially if it’s a fire of that magnitude. It made me want to push for more education and to work more with Hawai‘i Wildfire and Department of Hawaiian Homelands. Since wildland fire is only 8 - 10 % of our call volume, we hadn’t previously committed as many resources. That’s when I took it upon myself to see how I could be a better partner to support our community. Chief Kurishige has committed one of his inspectors to be a part of this public education and wildland fire mitigation efforts. Of course, it’s just starting and we have so much more to do.


The Mana Road fire was 40,000+ acres, and considered if not the largest, then the second largest fire? Was the sheer size of it something new?


Not only the size of it, but the manner in which it grew and expanded so quickly because of the weather. The first day, they thought they had it under control. But then the next day, the winds picked up and took over. That’s the hazard: dry conditions, low fuel moisture, high winds. Then it just ran and threatened a couple of communities. Luckily no one got injured or died, but we did lose a couple of structures.


I think of the parallels between Mana Road and the central Maui fires in 2019, the complex of fires there, i.e., the same conditions in which they had not seen flame lengths that long, wind speed, low relative humidity. Would you say that wasn’t something you’d seen before or perhaps only on a smaller scale?


I didn’t get to see it first hand, but I saw videos of flame lengths that were 40 ft. crossing the entire highway, attributed to the fuel loads and the winds, upwards of 40 mph. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop a fire like that. There were a lot of people who were angry that we couldn’t stop it. There’s only so much that response agencies can do.


How do you find transitioning from your role in management versus being in day-to-day response operations?


On the response side, it’s just that. We need to maintain preparedness at the company level at all of our stations and be ready to respond. If it’s a large fire it will go on for days, and so it’s about the commitment and dedication to come to work. That’s something I’ve personally always loved–working on a brush fire. The bulk of my career has been in central, where we don’t do that much wildland fire. When a wildland fire would happen and ask for our help, our entire company would go. We would plan this thing, get the experience, work hard, eat it up. Then I became a Company Officer, having to manage our responsibilities with our personnel, then as Battalion Chief having to coordinate with others on incidents and managing resources. Now as Assistant Operations Chief, it is management and oversight of the overall needs of the Battalion Chiefs and companies out there. It’s different managing the needs at each level, and I do miss being out there putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.


It’s such an immediate satisfaction, making a difference right then and there. You can look back at the end of the day and see what you did. And then in management, it’s a little more abstract, where instead you are empowering other people.


Yes, that’s a great point. You respond, mitigate, and you’re done. Get ready for the next incident and go out. It’s shorter. In management, you can go months if not years on a specific project, for example the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant for the Mana Road fires. It’s not easy. It’s my first time doing it, so I’m learning as I go along. The FEMA funds would go back to the landowners–to help them with fuels mitigation, defensible space, and education.


Looking at dealing with fuels mitigation at scale with large landowners, it’s always a question of resources. Do you think the carrot (collaborative) or stick (legislative mandates) approach or a little bit of both would be effective with large landowners in reducing wildfire fuel loads? 


It depends. The large landowners–for example, in South Kohala ranch lands–they can’t take away all the grass because that’s their livelihood. Then it becomes a question of how do we help mitigate or manage that with them. With the residents it’s defensible space, like with home ignition zone training. If people aren’t willing, then we aren’t going to have a partnership. If the large landowners are willing to make the adjustments to protect the community, that’s huge. For homeowners, they need to be willing to do the work on their properties to assure the safety of their homes.


Do you think that willingness to do the fuels mitigation has changed during the course of your career? Is wildland fire more on the radar?


It’s only been the past 4-5 years I’ve been working on it. Seeing the trends (global warming, drought effect), it’s different now than it was 20 years ago. The climate is a big part, and then of course invasive species, which if you don’t have any management or mitigation of that, then we see what we see. I’m still learning so much–seeing all the different players, and what affects a wildland fire. It’s intriguing and amazing–I love doing this work in wildland fire mitigation.


Do you think the average person knows how many different hats firefighters wear?


No. When people call 911, they are dealing with their life crisis at that moment. Most people don’t know how much we do across Hawai‘i Island with such limited resources.


For example, someone can get their blood pressure checked at a fire station right?


Yes, anyone can go to any fire station and request a blood pressure check. People also loved to take tours of the station. COVID-19 locked everything down, and affected services at the company level.


What is the range of training available to the average firefighter?


Firefighter recruits go through one year of basic training–fire essentials, mostly structural fire and some wildland, rescue, forceable entry into homes and vehicles. Then there’s three months of Emergency Medical Technician training. Our department does rescue systems training in rappelling and aquatics. We also have apparatus driver’s training and hazardous materials training.


Is there one incident or response that was most unusual or challenging for you?


Wildfires and structural fires challenge our resources. Recently, we had the old Hilo Bay hotel structure fire. I’ve responded to vehicle accidents, the ugliest incidents as far as injuries. I always enjoy wildland fires–I always had the affinity for it.


Do you have any thoughts about prescribed burning and applying it to Hawai‘i?


We would be too resourced-challenged to accomplish it the right way. We don’t have lands to do it, but I see the benefits of it. If PTA or DOFAW wanted to do it, we would do our best to support that.