The giant weeds can be seen along most Hawaiian country roads growing in thick clumps up to 10 feet tall with long leaves that scratch your skin if you brush against them. It is commonly known as “guinea grass,” and it is a big part of the problem that the Hawaii government is scrambling to face – wildfire.
State agencies were ill-prepared to handle the fire storm that rampaged downslope in West Maui to wipe out Lahaina, a cherished storehouse of Hawaii’s past. It was the first capital of Hawaii in 1807, after Kamehameha I consolidated his rule over all the islands.
Maui families are still grieving over the loss of lives in one of America’s most lethal fires. Hawaii officials have set the known death toll as of Sept. 15 at 97 as a result of further DNA testing.
Stunned as state and local officials were by the devastation and death wrought by the West Maui fire, none could say they weren’t warned, repeatedly. Researchers at the University of Hawaii had been studying wildfires in the islands for more than a decade with growing concern. Increasing dry periods were turning thousands of acres of fallow fields into fuel for fires that could ignite with a spark. Climate change was hardly a passing phenomenon, and urban growth had carried populations to the very edge of the combustible grasslands. It is estimated that the “alien” grasses now cover up to 25 percent of Hawaii’s land mass.
Clay Trauernicht, PhD, of the University of Hawaii, seems to have been the public face of the wildfire research effort, along with several collaborators. He and his colleagues have been tracking the history of island wildfires over the past century – and the finding is that the islands’ fire danger will only get worse.
“Conditions for fire are likely to worsen significantly by mid-century,” says Trauernicht. “The analysis also confirms patterns we’re already seeing in Hawaii. High rainfall in the 2017–2018 winter, followed by late-summer drought, contributed to nearly 30,000 acres burning across the state this August.” That was Trauernicht’s message to the Hawaii Legislature in 2018, after a severe wildfire season. But it seemed that few were focused on the wildfire issue.
The Legislature had declined to provide any significant additional resources for wildfire readiness throughout the islands. Some lawmakers are already planning to seek more funding for fire services. Former State Rep. Matt LoPresti expressed regrets to reporter Thomas Heaton, of Honolulu Civil Beat. The lives lost in the West Maui fire are still on his mind. “Honest to God, I feel that there’s blood on the hands of the Legislature for not doing what the experts have been saying for all these years,” LoPresti said. “If we had acted, we could have saved lives.”
The original sin, according to some Hawaiian activists, was committed by the “colonialists,” including the sanctimonious New England missionaries whose descendants prospered mightily from sugarcane.
Much of the fire-prone nonnative grasses thrive in abandoned fields where sugarcane was grown from early in the 19th century. The mostly American sugar barons were enriched by the public’s ever-demanding sweet tooth. The “alien” grasses were introduced to the islands by ranchers who needed more fodder for their cattle and other livestock. They imported guinea grass and other African plants to meet that need. As agricultural lands were abandoned, the aggressive “alien” plants moved in, crowding out native plants that would have been more fire resistant.
Carmen Lindsey, chair of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, vented about the Maui wildfire destruction in an interview recently with New Zealand’s RNZ public radio. “The fires of today are in part due to the climate crisis, a history of colonialism in our islands, and the loss of our right to steward our ʻāina and wai,” she said. (“Aina” is land and “wai” is water.) “Today we have watched our precious cultural assets, our physical connection to our ancestors, our places of remembering — all go up in smoke.”
The “steward” loss to which she refers was brought on by the Great Māhele, the division of lands and the establishment of private ownership of property, an alien concept to Hawaiians before Europeans arrived. The January 27, 1848, law is still regarded as the most significant event in Hawaiian history. It paved the way for foreign ownership of Hawaiian property and, ultimately, the sugar planters’ overthrow of Queen Lili`uokalani January 17, 1893. Hawaii soon became a U.S. territory and eventually a state.
Then came the gradual conversion of land to huge plantations, at great cost to the islands’ natural ecosystem. Field labor was imported from China, Japan, and the Philippines creating the demographic shift that is Hawaii today.
The last sugarcane mill in Hawaii, in Puunene, Maui, was shut down in December of 2016. The fallow lands left behind were quickly overgrown by guinea grass and other nonnative species. Most sugar is now produced in Brazil and Southeast Asia.
The scenario presented in a 2015 paper by Trauernich and colleagues was replicated almost exactly in the killer wildfire that swept through Lahaina last month: drought conditions, flammable guinea grass and other nonnative plants growing to the very edge of Lahaina. The final, unexpected element, was Hurricane Dora some 800 miles to the south of Hawaii but with winds on its fringe still potent. The result was a perfect firestorm as the wind whipped the blaze on the slopes above Lahaina into a firestorm.
The death toll ripped through the heart of the community. Anguish and anger were at first focused on Maui’s two most visible and hapless officials – Mayor Richard Bissen and Emergency Management Administrator Herman Andaya. Bissen wasn’t sure who was in charge. Andaya was in charge, but he was somewhere else.
Electrical transmission lines were down, suspected by some of providing the spark for the Lahaina fire. Cell towers were destroyed, cutting off an important means of communication. And there was no plan in place to evacuate residents before the wall of fire swept over Lahaina.
The only available alarm would have been the island’s tsunami sirens. Andaya decided they shouldn’t be used because Lahaina residents, thinking there was an approaching tsunami, might have fled upslope into the jaws of the approaching flames.
Whatever local Maui officials failed or were powerless to do, the ultimate blame was higher on Hawaii’s official food chain.
The Hawaii Legislature, the body that approves the state budget, had for years underfunded the state’s fire-response capabilities. Legislators simply failed to heed wildfire research that ultimately predicted the Maui disaster. The research of Hawaii’s leading university was set before legislators time and again over the past decade. The data showed that wildfires had steadily been increasing in scale and severity over the past several decades.
After hearing Trauernich’s 2018 report, Rep. Gregg Takayama introduced a bill that same year that would have established a task force to make recommendations on Hawaii’s disaster preparedness plan. That warning drew scant interest from most of his colleagues, it seemed.Takayama’s comment in Thomas Heaton’s Civil Beat story seemed to sum up the futility of the moment as he reflected on the tragedy of Lahaina and its many victims. What if the Legislature had listened and acted? “I wish I could say – in hindsight – we had considered it more seriously than we did. But we didn’t,” he said.