Why a massive fire could happen in Hawaii again | 60 minutes
As “60 Minutes” learned while covering this week’s broadcast, another devastating wildfire could happen again in the Aloha State as long as conditions remain unchanged — among them a dearth of firefighters and an abundance of dry grass.
The hills above Lahaina were once filled with sugar cane fields. But production of this crop, once the largest in the state, has ended. Hawaii’s last sugar mill harvested its last sugarcane production in 2016. Instead, the hills are now overrun with drought-resistant grasses brought to the state for livestock grazing.
Throughout the past century, Hawaiian ranchers introduced new grasses that grew quickly and spread quickly, ensuring a steady supply of livestock. These include buffalo grass and guinea grass, which are originally from Africa.
But those non-native grasses are now fueling something else: fires.
“It will eventually burn if there’s a ground ignition,” said Mike Walker, chief fire protection officer for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Walker has been warning about non-native grasses — and the danger from catastrophic wildfires — for years.
When grasses like guinea grass burn, they come back almost immediately because they respond to water so quickly, Walker explained. This means that areas where firefighters doused the flames with water will see new grass growth within days. These areas are largely unmanaged.
“We really need to get back to managed lands, these managed landscapes,” Walker said. “Humans created this problem, and it will not be solved without human intervention as well.”
Even then, another wildfire could happen at any time, Walker warned.
When that happens, Maui firefighters may be overwhelmed again. On a typical shift, there are between 60 and 70 dispatchers spread across 14 fire stations. According to Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Hawaii has not added a new fire company since 2003.
“So, look at the increase in the number of people coming to this island,” he told me. “You have farms that have closed, a lot of abandoned land, wildfire lands. Our firefighting force has been the same for the last 20 years.”
Hawaii’s geographic isolation exacerbates the problem. When large wildfires break out in California, for example, thousands of additional firefighters and pieces of equipment, including fire engines, can arrive at the scene within days. This summer, it took Lahaina two days to get 34 firefighters to Maui from Honolulu, Lee said. Even then, they could not bring trucks.
“We don’t have bridges connecting the islands,” he explained to me. “And we don’t have a ferry system that can help us, you know, hop islands quickly.” “What we have on the island is all we have. That’s all.”
Lee said the shortage of firefighters and equipment in Hawaii often comes down to money.
“Until you get something like this, it’s not important,” he said.
Now that this fire has caught people’s attention, Walker hopes their thoughts about fire dangers in Hawaii will change forever. Before the August fire, his worst-case scenario for a fire on the island was for people to lose their homes. He said he never imagined that an entire historic city would catch fire.
“If we forget this, then there is something wrong with us,” Walker said.
The video above was produced by Brett McCandless Farmer and edited by Will Croxton.
Photos and video courtesy of Getty Images, AP, AFP, and Alan Dickar/Getty Images.