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Maui fires: Hawaiians on many islands fear they’ll be next

In her home in Waianae, a small town on the edge of Oahu’s scenic west coast, Samantha DeCorte fears her family may be under fire from a firebomb. “We are on one of the driest places on the island,” she said, an area awash in the same types of dried vegetation that helped turn the Maui fire into a raging monster that has destroys Lahaina.

“It’s not very windy,” said DeCorte, a 43-year-old mother of three, “but when it does, it can be up with a snap of a finger, like in Lahaina.” And yet she isn’t aware of a county or state evacuation plan for her community and hasn’t heard of a rescue plan for residents in case the worst happens. . “It’s certainly a concern because we’ve never faced anything like this before.”

Across the Hawaiian island chain — including the larger, more populous islands of Hawaii and Oahu — many residents are in mourning and fear that a disaster west of Maui will hit their communities. As of Friday in Lahaina, at least 115 people had been confirmed dead, with 385 missing and more more than 2,000 structures destroyed. Damage projections amounted to $6 billion.

Hawaiians are nervous because the conditions that fueled this fast inferno are all around them. Their islands are plagued by vast fallow fields — a legacy of the plantation era that lasted for decades until many farms and ranches abruptly closed at the turn of the last century.

Tens of thousands of acres where sugar cane and pineapples once grew have become overgrown. invasive vegetation, such as fountain and guinea grasses, which can ignite easily and burn for weeks. The explosion of fires in the state, from 5,000 acres per year to 20,000 in recent decades, can likely be attributed to plantations altering the natural landscape, according to Clay Trauernicht, a wildfire specialist at the University of Hawaii quoted by the Associated Press.

Native Hawaiians, who fought to reclaim land taken from them after white businessmen plotted to dethrone Queen Lili’uokalani, also live in areas plagued by vegetation that fuels the fires of forest. Just south of DeCorte’s home are two of the largest properties in the state, land granted to residents with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood.

THE invasive grasses – introduced by ranchers looking for a supply of foliage for livestock that could survive droughts formed deep, flammable layers as it dried in a seasonal cycle. Yet for decades the Hawaiian government did little to reduce the thickets.

In a memorandum to state lawmakers eight months before the West Maui fires, Hawaii Governor Josh Green (D) highlighted the risks posed by invasive vegetation.

But in a passage that now worries many Hawaiians, the memo states that the Department of Lands and Natural Resources “has minimal resources to carry out this fire protection mandate on the vast landscape it manages despite existing and growing risks to public health, safety and the environment”.

Hawaii’s largest fire – the 2021 Mana Road Fire that burned 40,000 acres – was started by power tools workers were using to build a fence around the courses on the Big Island. Locals said they were counting on neighbors, private workers and others to provide equipment such as bulldozers to help firefighters battle the blaze.

In a statement to the Washington Post, the Hawaiian newspaper The Emergency Management Agency acknowledged that “recent deadly fires have heightened concern about fire risk in Hawaii, especially with worsening drought conditions during the long summer dry season.” As in the past, the agency pledged to improve fire hazard removal, saying “planners are beginning to work to secure additional resources to cut and remove fire-prone vegetation, including grasses.” invasive”.

The agency is also awaiting the results of the attorney general’s investigation into the Maui fire, the emailed statement said. “A key part of emergency management is adapting to changing hazards and their consequences. So we are always looking for better ways to prevent damage,” said EMA Administrator James Barros.

Many Hawaiians question the response of state and county officials to the West Maui Fire. Emergency management officials were slow to alert residents even as the National Weather Service warned of “a serious fire threat” from strong gusts of wind caused by the passage of a hurricane. The sirens that could have alerted the community to danger never sounded, unleashing a torrent of criticism against Maui’s emergency management chief, who resigned nine days after the fire.

These errors weigh heavily on Jeanne Cooper, who lives in the Koala by the Sea community, about 75 miles south of the Big Island of Hawaii. The same day Lahaina was engulfed, Cooper was forced to evacuate her home at 4:40 a.m. because of another wildfire.

Cooper ran to a nearby beach with two dogs and a cat, then waited for hours before rescue cleared him. give back. But around 3 p.m., the fire resumed.

“Firefighters thought the situation was under control,” Cooper, 61, said. “We had very, very high winds. Wind gusts stronger than any hurricane I’ve experienced. The fire came in stages. It blew one too many times and they had to back off line.

Cooper, a volunteer with the state’s Firewise Community Appreciation Program, knew why the fire was so aggressive. “Non-native grasses were the main fuel for the Lahaina fire and we are surrounded by them,” she said. “We are scared by the amount of grass we have. I have never seen so many concerns expressed in our neighborhood regarding fires.

The growing fear kept Mike Schorr busy. For the past six months, he has conducted home fire mitigation assessments as a volunteer for the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.

Prior to Lahaina, he conducted 12 assessments. In just two days, “I received eight requests,” said Schorr, 62. “I don’t chase people, let me put it that way.

“The events in Lahaina have highlighted how quickly things can happen,” he said. “On the Big Island, I can say that the communities are very worried. »

Mark Thorne, professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, said the community seems to take the threat more seriously than the government. He considers the situation to be so dire that he advocated open-field agriculture to prevent dry vegetation from accumulating there.

“There is no management, there is no agricultural production, there is no grazing for livestock,” he said. “All that grass, that biomass, it goes up, it dries up, it dies, it sets, it goes back up the next year.” This, he added, creates “a really dangerous situation”. on the drier western slopes of the islands.

“Every place across the state is like this. This disaster could happen anywhere in the state, in our downwind communities.

The scary thing, Thorne said, is that the state could let Lahaina’s lessons fade. “People kind of move on with their lives and kind of forget about it until we have the next disaster,” he said.

DeCorte, former Republican candidate for the state Senate, urges residents to be more aware of their surroundings and will lobby authorities to do more, in part because of the risks his community faces.

There is only one way in and out of his neighborhood of Oahu, surrounded by high cliffs. An evacuation following the tsunami in 2011 resulted in traffic jams that took two and a half hours to travel five miles. “What would happen in those minutes, I can’t even imagine,” she said. “They should at least provide us with an emergency access route. We have been trying to achieve this for decades.

This week, Maui County officials traveled to Kihei, in the south of the island, where Kalani Au-Hoon and other volunteers were working at a community distribution site for Lahaina victims. Officials asked what the workers needed, and Au-Hoon spoke up: Maui needs fireproof construction that relies on fireproof materials, not “matchbox tinder material.” , did he declare.

He said Kihei “has been a desert for many years and it catches fire every year.” Residents were evacuated at the time of the Lahaina fires and could breathe smoke from the Kula fires.

Au-Hoon, who was born in Oahu and raised in South Maui, pointed to a nearby field covered in dry, yellowing grass. “Here, a game. An ember, or something like that. And it’s toast,” he said.

Mike Munson, a native Hawaiian who lives on the Pu’ukapu property on the Big Island, said he has nephews and nieces who lost their home in Lahaina and a sister in shock because of people she knows are still missing.

Munson survived 2021 Mana Road fire that threatened hundreds of homes. It, too, was fed by high winds and fueled by invasive grasses. In lawsuit, Hawaiian settlers said sparks came from tools used to build ranch the fence started the fire, burning the land they previously farmed.

The situation could have been worse had the community not acted to protect themselves, said Munson, 64. “We used all our resources. People reacted and came to support us.

The West Maui fire made residents elsewhere realize how lucky they were, he said.

“This Lahaina event has really inspired a lot of people to secure their homes,” he added. It can happen to anyone.”

Chiu and Izadi reported from Maui. Fears reported from Washington


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