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Why fire is a growing risk in Hawaii

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Maui faces a long road to recovery from the devastating blazes this week — Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster since 1960. At least 55 people have died. Lahaina, the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom for a time before the US annexed the islands in 1898, is still smoldering.  

Fire experts in Hawaii knew the land was primed to burn. It hasn’t always been that way; fire risk arrived on the islands relatively recently in Hawaii’s history. That risk is growing, but there’s a lot that communities can do to adapt. 

To understand how fire came to be a looming threat in Hawaii and what to do about it, The Verge spoke with Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. The nonprofit organization works with local fire agencies and residents to help communities adapt to Hawaii’s new fire-prone landscape. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The crisis in Maui this week is unprecedented, but is a devastating blaze like this something that could become more common? 

Hawaii is a fire-prone state, and we have lots of precedent for large wildfires in our wildland areas. It’s just this is the first time that one of those fires hit a community. Those of us in the wildfire profession, we’re watching the risk. We know it’s there. It’s predictable. It’s measurable. We have the data. We’ve been trying to sound the alarm that we have a huge fire risk. 

“Our infrastructure and our communities weren’t built at a time when wildfire was a risk. Now, we’re at the stage of trying to retrofit everything and catch up to that risk.”

But because fire is new — as in over the last few decades — our risk has been increasing. We have more and more invasive grasses. We have changes in land use that have led to lots of fallow unmanaged land. Our infrastructure and our communities weren’t built at a time when wildfire was a risk. Now, we’re at the stage of trying to retrofit everything and catch up to that risk. So it’s unprecedented that we’ve had this amount of human and built environment loss, but it’s not unprecedented that we have fires.

I grew up in a fire-prone area in California, and I understood that fire was part of the natural landscape. I’m curious to what extent that’s the case in Hawaii. Or does it have more to do with these human-made problems when it comes to invasive grasses and fallow farmland?

It’s different than conifer forests that you might be used to in the West, where pine trees regenerate from extreme heat events. Pine cones open and release their seed when fire comes through. It’s the opposite here. Our native ecology is devastated by fire. It doesn’t come back. It doesn’t regenerate. We lose it permanently. We lose the seed bank; the soil is burnt. So what comes back is more and more of these invasive, fire-prone species. So, with each fire that we have, our fire risk actually grows, and we lose our native ecology. 

Over time, as that cycle has happened, our grasslands have expanded. As that has expanded, our fire risk has expanded. So we literally have communities where the fire risk has grown in around them, leaving them unprepared. As opposed to maybe in California, where you’re building in a forest, you know there’s fire risk. You know that when you’re moving in. But in this case, the fire risk grew up around these preexisting communities, leaving them unprepared. They’re just not designed to withstand fire in the way that places that have more experience with fire are designed.

So then, when did fire risk come to Hawaii, and how did it arrive?

As soon as areas began to be colonized and developed, especially as we moved into active agriculture, we were already making these huge land use changes. And then, when global economics changed the prices of sugar and pineapple, which is what used to be growing there, those agricultural operations left. It left us with these giant tracts of land that were just ready to be invaded. It was just primed to be invaded by these fire-loving, highly ignitable grass species. That’s what we’re dealing with in terms of fire risk on the ground.

“The last line of defense is to count on firefighting to do all the work.”

How has climate change affected fire risk in Hawaii?

It’s a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole thing. It’s not the reason and primary driver behind this fire. But it is related. We are having more drought episodes, which means that those grasses and all of our vegetation is drying out. When there are larger and bigger, more frequent hurricanes and storms that pass by, it does change our wind patterns and our humidity levels. [Editor’s note: powerful winds from a hurricane offshore fanned the flames that tore through Maui this week.] That adds to the threat of extreme fire behavior. It’s like the icing on the cake to the other changes we’ve already seen on the ground that have increased our risk over time.

So what can be done to adapt to this new fire risk when it comes to responding or even preventing these kinds of blazes?

The last line of defense is to count on firefighting to do all the work. That’s this myth that we are still trying to bust through in Hawaii, which is that it’s not all the way up to the firefighters. There’s so much prevention and mitigation that could be happening ahead of time. 

There are things that can be done at the residential level. It would look like, around our communities, people taking action. Keeping good housekeeping around their homes and yards, cleaning up leaf debris and litter. It would look like coming together to take care of communal areas and managing that vegetation. Being prepared for evacuation with solid communication. It would look like we had planning ordinances in place and requirements for wildfire-ready, wildfire-resilient development standards, code, and designs. 

We have over a million acres of these fire-prone grasslands that need to be managed. The issue is capacity. We need funds put toward that. Homeowners can only do so much with a poorly designed neighborhood, right? It’s like this multi-tiered, complex issue. No single part is to blame. There’s all sorts of stuff in that bigger picture that needs to happen infrastructurally to get us to a safer place.



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