A Waianae farmer fights invasive grasses and fires with sheep
His farm is located in a valley, surrounded by acres of flammable invasive guinea grass and brush — all of which have turned brown since the summer. By July, it becomes a potential source of fuel for wildfires.
Iaea, a retired county firefighter who took up farming in 2014, has already seen major fires on his six-acre plot twice — once in 2016 and again in the summer of 2018.
In 2016, a fire burned about 30 feet into the back side of his property. In 2018, it burned to the ground and destroyed his farm, including all of his hydroponic and farming equipment, along with 36 beloved mango trees — and 20 years of work.
All that remained was his house and the tractor.
“I know what those guys from Lahaina are going through,” he said one morning as he surveyed his land, his dog Kea trotting beside him.
He was lucky, as four of the nine operating farms in the state’s 150-acre Waianae Agricultural Park suffered complete losses, according to the state Department of Agriculture. All 17 lots, some of which remain vacant, sustained damage.
Iya, the owner of Kawawai Farms, says his neighbors were having a barbecue when the fire broke out. They survived, but lost their home and livelihood – a thriving palm plantation – to the fire.
The August 2018 wildfires were among the worst in modern history, burning thousands of acres, including more than 1,500 acres of state forest preserves, and threatening homes and schools.
But those weren’t the only fires the community experienced. Iya said that he experiences fires every two years, coming from above and below the farm.
As a firefighter, he fought fires that broke out in these valleys, often because there were no police in the area and vagrants or campers started the fires. One year, it was caused by arson below.
“When you’re talking about 40 or 50 mph winds, all it takes is one house,” he said. “Once a house gets to 40 or 50 miles per hour, it will comply…and then that’s the start of the fire, and that’s what happened in Lahaina.”
The potential damage from just one ignition leaves those who have been struck living on edge.
Knowing that another fire was likely, he decided to take the initiative.
With a grant from the nonprofit Hawaiian Wildfire Management Organization, he acquired six sheep in 2020, including a mix of Dorper sheep and Barbados black-bellied sheep.
There are now 14 sheep, and the sheep are doing what they do best, efficiently chewing grass along the access road in the easement above his farm, as well as the invasive koa howli. This strategy is called targeted grazing.
Yaya, an aquaculture expert, may not have imagined sheep when he started his journey, but now he is grateful for their existence.
He currently rounds up the sheep on two acres along the road, where they did their work, and plans to move them to the other side soon after the fence is built. There, they are expected to clear grass up to the edge of Kawi Ridge.
This creates a fire barrier, preventing fires from moving up or down the hill, he said. It’s a good complement to the natural rock stream, which is also a firebreak, that already runs through the property.
A firebreak is essentially plowed or cleared land that forms a barrier to slow or stop wildfires.
Hawaii needs hundreds more miles of them, Hawaii Wildfire said in a 2019 report. A network of these firebreaks is needed to protect communities and environmental resources.
But even a mixture of lower fuels can significantly slow the spread of wildfires across the landscape, Hawaii Wildfire said in the report.
In Hawaii, nearly all wildfires, 99%, are started by humans, according to the nonprofit, and the majority are accidental, whether it’s hot exhaust on dry grass, cigarettes, the spark of machinery, fireworks or power lines.
The map created by Clay Trawernicht, a fire and ecosystems specialist at the University of Hawaii, shows the Waianae area as a “hot spot” because of its high density of ignition per square mile.
Waianae has the highest and most persistent year-round risk on the west side, he said, due to higher ignition frequency, dry conditions and fuels.
Fires follow fuel in the form of invasive grasses, which become flammable during drought. The Waianae landscape is full of guinea grass, buffalo grass, and koa, allowing fires to spread quickly.
Trawernicht considers vegetation to be the most problematic issue in fire management, as communities and forests are increasingly surrounded by fire-prone grasslands — about 1 million acres of it statewide.
Studies have indicated targeted grazing as a cost-effective and effective method of vegetation management without herbicides. This idea has taken hold in California, where goats and sheep are regularly deployed to clear fire-prone forests along hillsides.
In Hawaii, the idea of contract grazing is still relatively new. Some solar companies pay for sheep grazing to maintain grass on their solar farms. Many landowners use heavy machinery or manual weeding services, and others use herbicides.
Over the past five years, Iya has rebuilt his farm using hydroponic systems and growing dragon fruit, lemon and taro.
He’s passionate about protecting his farm, but he also believes that if he brought in sheep to create an example of a firebreak, the farms above him might do the same.
“After I saw this area here, I knew that if we removed the fuel from here, we could stop the fire in any direction,” he said.
Above the easement is more land — former ranch land — that belongs to the Honolulu Water Supply Board, and above that, more farms.
On the edge of the fence, Eya planted a row of dragon fruit, which he said acts as a “green ribbon” on his farm, helping to prevent the spread of fire.
As part of his ongoing project, Eya continues to cull the remaining kiwi trees, which he plans to replace with native, drought-resistant williweli trees. When fires catch, dry kiawe trees can be dangerous because the flames go vertically and the embers rise, he said. Add the wind, and they can travel several hundred feet.
Looking across the valley, Iaea is concerned not only for all the farmers, but also for all the family homes in the area, especially the homes in Hawaii.
Like Lahaina, it is located in what is called the “wildland-urban interface,” or the area where housing mixes with undeveloped wildland vegetation in the form of fallow pastures that have become potential powder boxes.
“The interface of wilderness and urban surroundings surrounds the Waianae House,” he said. “If you take an aerial photo, there’s all this dry grassy area surrounding the houses.”
The two hotspots for fires on Oahu are in the Waianae and Nanakuli valleys, which are also where Hawaiian homes are located, and must be protected as well, he said.
Fire hot spots
Iaea is part of a group of community members who meet almost every month, with the Hawaii Wildfire Department, to discuss potential wildfires.
Even as a firefighter, Iya said he knows Hawaii sees more fires than the U.S. average
He said the Waianae Fire Station was among the 50 busiest stations in the United States for fire response during his 28-year career.
“Being a small Waiana town, this is very important,” he said. “You’re competing against New York City and Los Angeles. So the experience of fire approaching your home is an experience that’s ingrained in everyone’s mind.
Last year, the Honolulu Fire Department responded to more than 300 fires on the west side of Oahu. This summer, there were more than a dozen of them along the Waianae Coast and Inner Valley, as well as at Ewa Beach, Kapolei and Makakelo.
Drought has worsened across Hawaii, with more than 81% of the Hawaiian Islands now experiencing moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. These conditions are expected to continue over the next few months.
In 2018, simultaneous fires broke out in three valleys – in Makaha, Waianae and Nanakuli, Iya said.
Once the fire stations in Waianae and Nanakuli are deployed, the next station will be in Kapolei, Waipahu or further afield in the Pearl City. He said they would need at least a half-hour to get to Waianae, and by then, it might be too late.
“When you have three valleys burning at once, those assets are very limited, and the response time is very long, which can lead to a tragedy,” he said. “If your wind speed is 40 to 50 miles per hour, you are on your own and it was That way for a long time.
He envisions that one day, there will be an organization that brings in sheep to create fire breaks as a service to all affected communities, including Hawaii homes where vulnerable families live.
“A lot of times, when you try to explain, they can’t see it,” he said. “One of the people who really helped me in the beginning said to me, ‘You have to build it and then show it.’”