2 new laws strengthen penalties for arson
It remains to be seen if the measures curb summer brush fires
A Waianae Coast resident for 76 years, Albert Silva never saw the mountain range near his home go up in flames the way it did last year, when nearly 1,000 separate blazes were reported.
Now, as the summer heat dries brush that grew thick from recent rains, Silva and others who live on Leeward Oahu hope new laws targeting arson will prevent people from setting fires. But many doubt that harsher penalties alone can stop crimes that appear to be done mostly by kids falling to peer pressure in a poor neighborhood.
"It seems like they get a kick out of it. I hear they just park on the side of the roads and watch the firemen work," said Silva, who owns cattle and is a Waianae Neighborhood Board member. "It's sort of easy to get by. Now they may have to pay a little more."
STAR-BULLETIN / AUGUST 2005
Exhausted firefighters battling a huge brush fire in Nanakuli scramble to get gear as a hot spot flares up. The huge fire last summer was stopped before it reached homes along Puawiliwili Street. Residents suspect kids in many cases of arson.
The two bills, signed into law by Gov. Linda Lingle this month, define arson as a new class of property damage in the first, second, third and fourth degree, punishable with prison time and fines ranging from $2,500 to $10,000. The measures require offenders to perform community service and, when a minor is convicted of sparking the blaze, parents will be held liable for all costs associated with putting out the fire.
State Sen. Russell Kokubun, a former volunteer firefighter,* said he introduced one of the bills to close a loophole in state law that only allowed prosecutors to go after offenders if there was property damage. He said police can now press charges against arsonists if the fire burns at least 10,000 square feet of brush.
"I was dumbfounded by the fact that there was no crime for arson here in Hawaii," said Kokubun (D, Hilo-Naalehu). "If you caught somebody starting a fire, you couldn't really do anything."
Ron Sanford, who heads a firefighting unit near Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, said the new law could have given more adequate punishment for a volunteer firefighter who was caught burning a 40-foot refuse container one night in 1998.
"He was back home that evening," Sanford said. "He was always the first one to respond to fires, only because he was setting them on."
And despite being found responsible for as many as 21 fires at an average cost of $6,000 each, the man was only ordered to pay $100 in fines, write an apology and serve five years' probation, Sanford said.
Last year, the only person charged in one of the 949 blazes in Waianae was a 27-year-old woman, but only because she allegedly had Molotov cocktail in her car, said Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, who introduced one of the fire bills.
"It was a federal crime for using an explosive device," she said, noting that police "could not prosecute any of the persons responsible for the brush fires" because the offenses fell under property damage.
"What was being burned was dry grass that didn't reach the amount necessary" to press charges, said Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua). "It may seem like a fun thing to do for some of them, but now that we have a penalty, this is what we are hoping will stop it."
The bills exempt fires done to clear fields for agriculture as well as those prescribed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
While he appreciates the intent of the bills, Alvin K. Awo, a member of the Waianae board, opposed the portion of the law that makes parents of teenage arsonists liable, saying they have no control over what their kids do.
"A lot of the families out here are very good, but the kids, it's peer pressure, you know, 'I got to look tough,' or 'I'm from Waianae, I can't be a daisy in the pound,'" Awo said. "This is the kind of attitude that I'm seeing, where the parents can't discipline their kids."
Poka Laenui, executive director of the Waianae Coast Community Mental Health Center, said he believes residents, schools and fire officials should do a better job educating children about the dangers of fires. He suggested programs to teach students about native plants and animals that are lost each time flames consume the mountain.
"We need to engage the schools from elementary all the way up to high schools," he said. "We are only approaching it from one perspective: more police enforcement. I don't think that's going to work."