First off, I’m grateful for everyone for continuing to check in and ask how Maui’s doing and where things are at. It’s been six weeks now and I felt compelled to share some of my thoughts. This tragedy really shined light on Maui, both positively and negatively. In the immediate aftermath, there was so much gossip and hearsay that it was honestly hard to stay level headed. At the same time, tough questions about faulty infrastructure, allocation of resources and the overall response from our county and state government have all proven warranted.
Still yet, our island community and grassroots efforts have been extraordinary. There have been so many heroes to step up over the past month plus, it’s seriously been awe-inspiring to witness the outpouring of those willing to help. I featured a few noteworthy individuals in a recent blog championing hope, courage and gratitude.
The devastating wildfires in Lahaina on August 8, 2023 have permanently changed West Maui. Many people are still missing, and thousands have been displaced. This tragedy has resulted in the heart-wrenching loss of so many homes, so many local businesses, and centuries of rich cultural heritage in the historic town of Lahaina–once capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
I was born and raised on Maui and grew up with the general awareness that wildfires were a rare occurrence caused by a few predictable things. In the past, fires were typically ignited by lightning strikes or the occasional knucklehead throwing a cigarette out of their window. Over the past ten years (and especially since 2016 when sugar cane production halted), the island has become extremely dry. You have probably noticed this flying into Maui; it just doesn’t look nearly as green and lush as it used to. The risk of wildfires has been further increased by the convergence of: urban interfaces; antiquated above ground power lines; lower humidity levels; and most recently, extreme drought conditions. All of this unfortunately has created the ideal conditions for the emergence of wildfires as a more immediate threat on Maui now and in the future. And sadly, numerous intelligent individuals and virtuous organizations have been warning about these increased risks for years now.
These days, wildfires have become much more common and intense in our islands. On average, approximately 17,000 acres of land now burn each year in Hawaii. Back in 2019, the Central Maui fire, fueled by dry vegetation, wind, and extreme heat, became the largest recorded fire in Maui’s history, burning over 25,000 acres of land. Since that fire occurred, local residents have been more and more concerned with this looming threat to Maui.
The governments of the County of Maui and the State of Hawaii, along with the Hawaii Electric Company, were aware of this imminent wildfire danger on Maui. Unfortunately, they did not mandate serious measures to mitigate this threat. Instead of investing in essential wildfire safety preventative measures, the Hawaiian Electric Company allocated its resources towards exerting their political influence through lobbying efforts with state regulators and politicians.
Following the Maui wildfires in 2019, state records reveal that Hawaiian Electric allocated a mere $245K for wildfire-specific mitigation efforts on Maui until 2022. This figure stands in a stark contrast to the tens of millions of dollars disbursed in equity dividends and executive compensation during the past four years.
While the exact cause of the fires remains under investigation, there is a growing body of evidence pointing to Hawaiian Electric’s equipment as the likely source of the fires this year. On the morning of August 8th, as the 80 MPH winds picked up speed, several local residents captured videos showing downed power lines sparking fires in the dry grass of Lahaina. On August 24th, the County of Maui filed a lawsuit against the Hawaiian Electric company for civil damages caused by recent Maui fires. This lawsuit alleges that Hawaiian Electric acted negligently by failing to power down their electrical equipment despite a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning on August 7th. The lawsuit further alleges Hawaiian Electric energized the downed power lines that ignited dry fuel such as grass and brush, causing the fires.
Apart from the concerns regarding Hawaiian Electric’s slow progress in executing wildfire safety enhancements, inquiries have also risen concerning the non-utilization of Hawaii’s robust emergency siren system, the loss of telecommunications during the fires, and the absence of water management policies that could have supplied firefighters with water during the emergency. There was a point in time on August 8th that the fire hydrants were not functional. It’s so hard to process.
Looking towards the future, I believe we need to heavily invest in more underground utilities even though it’s more expensive than above ground lines. We must especially do this in fire prone areas like Lahaina, Kihei, and Paia town. I also believe that Hawaiian Electric should be forced to adopt clear policies and action plans in conjunction with emergency agencies to shut down the power grid during heavy wind storms and declare brownouts in the future.
These precautionary measures are relatively common and have been adopted by other utilities in states with high fire risks like California. Next time there is a public emergency, for God’s sake sound the alarm system and let people decide whether to evacuate or shelter in place. We must take some serious learning lessons from this horrible tragedy so that history doesn’t repeat itself in the future.
Staying optimistic during these trying times isn’t always easy, but I feel it is important. Like I said before, seeing our island come together with laulima and kokua is truly inspiring. There aren’t many places around that have a stronger sense of community. We simply care for one another. This tragedy has emphasized the importance of a better safety mindset for our island residents, which can only be beneficial in the years to come. This increased awareness means we have the potential to make Kihei, Paia, Kahului, Upcountry and other fire prone areas much safer in the future.
I believe these fires can also be the impetus for better involvement in local government. If we the people show up to more county meetings, our collective voice will be heard. It is possible to shape Maui’s future for the better after all of this. We can look at a master planned community like Wailea as an example. During the initial development in the 70’s and 80’s, they had the foresight to bury all their utility lines underground. This is a main reason why Wailea is so safe today for both residents and visitors alike. Let’s hope, in the future, that all proposed large developments on this island follow that lead.
Finally, I ask you dear reader, to continue helping and donating whenever possible. Money and goods, of course, but also time, energy and effort if on island. Continue to support local businesses. We cannot let another economic disaster come about like during the pandemic. This rebuilding process will take many years, if not decades. Our struggles will most certainly fade from the international spotlight. Yet, our island will stand together. There will be deep scars, most certainly, but we will heal. We are Maui Strong!