How Maui's unrestrained grasses became a 'time bomb' for wildfires

How Maui's unrestrained grasses became a 'time bomb' for wildfires

Michael Walker, Hawaii's fire protection forester, urged state lawmakers last year to make a relatively small financial commitment to boost wildfire preparedness: about $1.5 million.

This money, in the form of a bill that would have funded new firefighting operations, livestock grazing and firefighting water infrastructure, was intended to ensure some safety from the highly flammable non-native grasses that cover much of Hawaii.

The bill died in committee.

“This is something they've been asking for for years, and this is the furthest they've ever gone,” said State Rep. Darius Killa, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. “We have to be better about being proactive.”

The fires that destroyed the city of Lahaina last week and killed at least 110 people were caused by some factors beyond the control of local officials, such as drought conditions and strong hurricane-force winds. But the spread of highly flammable grass fuels and the lack of action and funding to address them looms as the biggest missed opportunity — one that highlights the challenges state and local officials face in taking action to avoid natural disasters.

Hawaii wildfire experts have warned for years that overgrown grasses put communities like Lahaina at extreme risk of devastating wildfires, but officials have struggled to fund projects and introduce policies used elsewhere in the country to reduce the risks. This means that fallow fields often remain unused, freeing up more land for weeds to spread – and in many cases, the real estate value of the land exceeds what farmers can pay to lease it. There are no incentives or mandates to keep landscapes weed-free, said Mark Thorne, a rangeland scientist and board member of the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.

“It was only a matter of time before something happened,” Thorne said, adding that the winds that caused the fire were strong and the scale of the tragedy could not have been predicted. “In the case of Lahaina, we did not take all possible steps to mitigate the risks.”

Taylor Gunner and Hannu Gunner search for their belongings among the ashes of their burned-out family home in Lahaina on Friday. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP – Getty Images

Walker said he could not speak to the media without the agency's approval. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources did not respond to questions about its budget or priorities, saying its offices are “engaged in emergency response” and “unable to respond to non-critical media requests.”

Other infrastructure concerns may have hampered efforts to combat the fire that swept through Lahaina. Firefighters said they ran out of water to put out the fire. Hawaiian Electric, the state's largest utility, faces several lawsuits alleging that its delay in upgrading the grid set the stage for the wildfires and that the utility should have shut off power during the high wind event to prevent them from spreading.

The leeward — dry — side of Maui is no stranger to dangerous fire weather conditions. An NBC News analysis of National Weather Service data shows that in the past 17 years, the agency has issued 65 red flag warnings or fire weather watches in the area, including Lahaina.

Native Hawaiian ecosystems adapt to wildfires; Fires were rare before human settlement and the spread of non-native species. Most were introduced decades ago to feed livestock, Thorne said. Other species arrived by chance. The decline of agriculture – livestock, sugar cane plantations, pineapple plantations – has allowed non-native species to breed on the islands.

In other parts of the United States, state governments use fenced livestock to graze and remove non-native grasses that spread fires. These techniques are not widely used on Maui.

“It was a ticking time bomb,” said Camilo Mora, a climate scientist and professor at the University of Hawaii.

Nonnative grasses dominate about a quarter of the archipelago's landscape, according to research by Clay Traurnicht, a wildland fire specialist at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, who has repeatedly issued public warnings about the issue in letters to the editor, news stories and research papers.

A 2014 report by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization listed the fire danger in Lahaina as extreme. In 2021, a report on wildfire prevention on Maui suggested that officials implement “a bold plan to replace dangerous fuel sources with native plants” and that more attention is needed to former sugarcane plantations.

Little has been done to prevent the wastelands from becoming overgrown. These lands are assessed as real estate, and Thorne said few landowners pay to preserve or reforest them.

A man walks through the debris of a wildfire in Lahaina last week. Rick Bomer/AP

“A lot of this land, former sugarcane and pineapple land, is mostly fallow,” Thorne said. “There is no management at all.”

One nonnative species — guinea grass — can grow at a rate of 6 inches a day, according to Walker, the fire protection worker, who spoke about the problem during a video conference in April. When burned, guinea grass can produce flames 20 feet tall.

Mora said human-caused climate change could fuel grass growth due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Weeds grow quickly during periods of rain, then dry out — and burn if a spark catches them — during dry spells, like a recent trend on Maui. Research suggests that climate change could intensify this cycle.

The Hawaii Department of Forestry and Wildlife is the primary responder to wildfires on 26% of Hawaii's land, and is assisting county fire departments and federal partners on another third of the state's lands, Walker said in a video conference. The department is part of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, which this fiscal year allocated about $28 million in its operating budget for natural resources and fire protection, including species conservation and fire suppression and prevention, according to the Hawaii State Budget. Budget planners estimate the federal government will contribute another $21 million to conservation and wildfire efforts.

As of April, the agency maintained about 142 miles of firebreaks — strips of cleared or plowed land designed to prevent a fire from advancing.

Scientists say funding levels are insufficient when much of the Earth is covered in fire-prone fuels.

“This task is absolutely massive,” Mora said, estimating that the cost of rehabilitating the landscape to reduce fire risk could require more than $1 billion. “They are completely underfunded.”

Nonprofits struggled to secure funds as well. In its 2019 grant application, the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization wrote that most of its funding came from federal grants that it had to compete against “western U.S. states where wildfire issues receive more media coverage.” The nonprofit added that it is requesting state funds after losing federal grants for 2019-2021.

“Because of this fire, we're going to pay 10 times what it would have taken to initially fix this problem,” Mora said.

    (tags for translation) US News

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