Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

Firebird Journal Pheonix Image

An iconic town, a perfect storm and a warning

Home of Pele by Thomas, 2019 — Flickr Creative Commons

I visited Lahaina, back in the day. My girlfriend and I pitched a tent and camped on the beach just south of town, where ginormous hotels now block access to the water. We wandered downtown and bought T-shirts and sampled the local cuisine. We visited the charming Lahaina Heritage Museum, with its priceless artifacts from the time when the town was the first capitol of the united islands under king Kamehameha, and from the whaling days and from the colonial era. Always thought I’d get back there someday.

While in Hawaii, I learned a bit about the alteration of nature. Plush, copious waterfalls on the eastern side of the Big Island (Hawaii) dried up entirely in late summer, as all the water was diverted to irrigate sugar-cane plantations. Once-thriving cattle ranches were drying up too, as the economy of the islands was increasingly dominated by tourism, and beef from other countries undercut Hawaii’s export markets.

The demise of the ranches, which had altered much of the natural terrain, didn’t seem especially disturbing at the time — unless you were a rancher, of course. Without cattle tromping all over the land, I figured it would eventually return to something resembling its original condition. What I didn’t know is that those cattle were mostly eating Kikuyu grass, a species imported from Africa because of its primo grazing properties.

Described as an “aggressive and vigorous perennial” by the University of Hawaii’s Cooperative Extension Service, the invasive grass can grow an inch per day, and outcompete native plants for turf, sun and water. So when the cattle stopped eating it, the Kikuyu grass spread quickly. According to University of Hawaii wildfire expert Clay Trauernicht, there are “thousands of acres of uninterrupted grasslands in Hawaii.” A big patch of those grasslands was on the slopes above Lahaina, growing right up to the edge of the community.

Maui from Space, August 8, 2023 — Courtesy NASA

Enter climate change.

Hawaii has been suffering from an extended drought since 2008. But although there has been less rain overall, the rains, when they come, tend to be heavy. So the Kikuyu grass grows quickly when it rains, then gets very dry, loading the fields with fuel that has fed numerous previous wildfires. Additionally, there was a “flash drought,” a sudden, intense dry period, that began a few weeks before the Lahaina fire.

Reenter climate change.

At the time of the Lahaina fire, Hurricane Dora was making its “unusually long” trek eastward over the Pacific, passing about 700 miles south of Maui and creating a low-pressure zone in its wake. At the same time, there was an “unusually strong” high-pressure zone north of the Island. From that zone powerful winds, gusting to 63 mph, moved toward the low-pressure zone — that is, across Maui’s grassy highlands and down the slopes toward Lahaina.

Pele shared her rage; passionate she boiled… Poet Mathew Wetter on Hawaii’s fire goddess

Then: A downed power line? Barbecue embers? Sparks from a truck?

Trauernicht has advocated for the prophylactic repurposing of the grasslands for local agriculture, releasing some hungry goats, and creating firebreaks of cultivated pineapples. This would cost…as much as one or two condo buildings in town?

He was ignored.

And now more than 100 are dead, thousands homeless, history, culture and charm gone — forever. Only the Kikuyu grass will recover quickly.

In our new era of intensified climate change impacts, thousands of towns have vulnerabilities similar to Lahiana’s. Their flood maps are out of date and their dams are aging. They sit at the edge of a rising sea, or an encroaching, tinder-dry forest. What were once acceptable levels of risk are now potential disasters.

Lahiana has warned them. Will they act before it’s too late?


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6 Responses

  1. The immediate cause of the fire is not established, so far as I know on Sept. 18, 2023. I read somewhere that the power company claims that there was an electrical fire, but it was put out before the main fire began. One point of the article is that there could have been any number of proximal causes such as kids playing with matches, sparks from a truck, power lines. Once the conditions are right, then there is a good chance that a fire will get started and, once started, will soon be out of control.

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Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.