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  • Writer's pictureNathanael Bueno

The increased fire risk in Hawai‘i’s changing landscape

It’s really hard to grasp the magnitude of the damage that has been done to the historic town of Lahaina. To put things into perspective, the destruction captured in these images by Civil Beat shows that the fire left no trace of the vibrancy it once had. This sudden and immense loss has deeply affected countless families who are displaced from their own homes, reminding us of the profound grief that comes after these disasters.

The human toll of the wildfires is something that we must never forget. A recent Hawaii News Now article has shared the tragic news that the death toll has reached 97, with an additional 22 people still unaccounted for. These victims are an undeniable testament to the deep connection the Maui community has with its environment. The residents, their homes, and their memories reduced to ashes are all strongly intertwined with the land—the land of Maui’s once vibrant agricultural landscape.

Maui’s Agricultural Landscape

Maui was initially favored for its agriculture. Its fertile soils and climate made it perfect for Maui to have an agriculture based economy. Sugarcane and pineapple were the two main non-native crops being planted in Western Maui and this would terribly alter Maui’s water supply. The agricultural land use was not just about the crops themselves, said Clay Trauernicht, an ecosystems and fire specialist at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, during a panel discussion from Civil Beat, . “It’s societal changes that are a function and they really link us back to the longer term history in Hawai‘i of land use, land privatization, the kind of imposition of Colonial forms of commodity production.”

According to a Maui Island History Report by the Maui County, during the mid to late 1900s after World War II, there began a market for real estate development, and plantation owners were introduced with this new business opportunity. “It’s this economic model or economic incentives that are really driving that shift in land use,” Trauernicht said in the same panel discussion, showcasing the bigger picture of this transformation.

As the plantation industry came to a halt, new towns, resorts, and tourist destinations began to emerge. This subsequently led to a rise of visitors, which was the threshold of the tourist industry. Gradual urbanization began to take place as the population grew during the late 1900s. Residential areas and commercial centers developed in areas where rich agriculture once was, and that has led to a multitude of challenges. One of them mainly being the water shortages during extensive periods of drought.

Trauernicht elaborates on an overlooked consequence saying, “the people that worked on those plantations were doing all this work to maintain roads, maintain water, work with firefighters when they responded. So, we see this huge burden shift onto the firefighters as those operations shut down, and not much changed as far as resources devoted to fire suppression.”

Maui was once a wetland with freshwater ponds and a thriving ecosystem with a rich biodiversity. Raising these non-native crops and the overdevelopment on land that is incompatible with such structures has disrupted the natural balance. Human interventions were responsible for the shift that deteriorated—and continues to deteriorate—Maui’s agricultural landscape.

A prominent example of this transformation is Mal‘ulu‘olele Park located in Lahaina. This park was formerly known as Moku‘ula. Moku‘ula was a tiny island that was surrounded by Mokuhinia, a freshwater pond. Historically, this island was an important landmark that embodied significant Hawaiian heritage as it served as a residence for Hawaiian Royalty, further emphasizing its cultural importance. For the sake of modernization and reconstructing the land, the Mokuhina was filled in and the park that is present today took shape.

Concerns for O‘ahu

Maui’s transition into a more arid landscape made the land more vulnerable ultimately culminating in the Lahaina wildfires. However, this is just one factor of many that contributed to this tragedy. The challenges that Maui faced could very much be parallel to the possible future of O‘ahu. A dynamic environment coincided with human behaviors that contribute to the fires in Maui is not unheard of. O‘ahu has its own sort of developments where similar vulnerabilities could arise.

In the same panel discussion by Civil Beat, Elizabeth Picket, the co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, explains that various human activities are the catalysts for a majority of fires. These include campfires, fireworks, barbecues, and driving on dry grass, and possible equipment malfunctions from welders, grinders, and power utility devices. It’s important to note that these ignitions from these various factors frequently occur on every island.

This highlights the human activity aspect of fire ignition and Maui’s landscape is not the only factor in the rising number of fires. Picket points out that, “this is a statewide issue. It’s predictable [and] we know that humans are starting fires. The very first part of fire prevention and mitigation is adjusting our behaviors to not be accidentally starting fires.”

Moreover, the issue of wildfires is not just about who started it, it’s also about where it begins. Picket adds that these unmanaged fields become more susceptible to fires as it grows denser. “When our accidental ignitions occur in these areas, combined with the available fuel, we have a recipe for fire.”

The challenge against fire mitigation is worsened by the limited firefighting resources and infrastructure. Fires spread rapidly, especially when there is limited access to affected lands and damaged water infrastructure. She pointed out that, “We have fire departments amazing at what they do, but they don’t have the capacity we wish they had or the access or all the budget that we wish they had.”

In the end, the root causes of these wildfires are so multifaceted as it ranges from changing landscapes to human behaviors. O‘ahu, along with the rest of the islands, need to examine the series of historical events and human decisions that led up to Maui’s tragedy. Understanding and learning from wildfire incidents is not something that solely concerns Maui’s residents, but important for everyone across the islands to recognize.

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