Saturday, August 20, 2005

Federal agency will
offer fire funds

75 percent of eligible costs from
the fire at Waikele and Mililani
might be recouped

Hawaii taxpayers might not have to foot the entire bill for fighting this week's brush fires in Waikele and Nanakuli.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved Hawaii's request yesterday for federal funds to help pay for fighting the Waikele-Mililani fire, which began Wednesday. Earlier this week, FEMA approved funding to battle the 2,800-acre Nanakuli fire, which began Sunday and was the largest Oahu brush fire of the more than 700 so far this season.

The state and city might be able to recoup 75 percent of eligible costs, including the high price of operating helicopters to make water drops.

The Waikele-Mililani fire burned about 250 acres, according to fire Capt. Emmit Kane, threatening homes in surrounding areas including the Royal Kunia subdivision. Firefighters continued putting out hot spots and monitoring the Waikele and Nanakuli sites yesterday.

FEMA gave the OK as soon as officials confirmed homes were threatened.

"FEMA is here to make sure that Hawaii has the resources needed to fight this fire, and federal government will be with the state every step of the way," Michael Brown, undersecretary of homeland security for emergency preparedness and response, said in a press release.

This is the only grant in which FEMA approves assistance for a disaster before meeting cost thresholds, said Vic Gustafson, plans and operations branch chief for Hawaii State Civil Defense.

"The object is to prevent a bigger catastrophe from happening," Gustafson said. "It gives the leeway for the state and firefighters to put more assets, put as much manpower, water power, helicopter power ... to try and prevent it from getting into a residential (area) where we lose lives and property."

Eligible costs include equipment use, tools, materials and supplies, mobilization and demobilization activities, FEMA officials said.

Gustafson said HFD has six months to compile the costs of fighting the two blazes, and there are no preliminary estimates.

The federal aid would also cover the cost of military helicopters, for which the military may bill the city.

But before FEMA provides the aid, minimum thresholds set for the state must first be met.

Costs for a single brush fire must hit a $100,000 threshold to meet eligibility. However, once Hawaii counties collectively surpass cumulative costs of $500,000 during a calendar year, even a brush fire that incurs less than $100,000 in costs could still be eligible for federal moneys.

Hawaii State Civil Defense Vice Director Ed Teixeira said Tuesday that $500,000 threshold had already been exceeded.

State foresters alone have already spent more than $315,000 to help fight fires to protect forest reserves and watershed areas, including the use of contracted helicopters.

Hawaii also received FEMA funding approval for two Big Island fires: The 25,000-acre fire that began Aug. 1 in Lalamilo near Waimea and burned to the edge of Waikoloa village, the largest in Big Island history; and the Aug. 4 2,000-acre Akoni Pule Highway fire.

Fire grant approval does not automatically mean federal reimbursement. Costs must meet eligibility requirements. And last year, a Waikoloa fire received approval but fell $5,000 short of the $100,000 minimum.

In related news, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also awarded grants of $573,816 to the Honolulu Fire Department and $79,278 to Maui County Department of Fire and Public Safety. These Assistance to Firefighters Grants will help pay for training, health and safety programs, equipment and response vehicles.

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