Afterthoughts: A Burning Love

Cane fires? I'm for 'em. I might be the only one.

Illustration: Daniel Fishel

A long-time Maui tradition kicks off again this month: the beginning of cane-burning season. As it does every year, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar will be setting fire to roughly 400 acres of field a week, through November, sending billowing plumes of smoke into the sky over the Valley Isle.

Cane fires are one of the things I miss most about Maui. Driving down the road and suddenly having my car filled with fragrant, molasses-y smoke, or looking up and seeing curls of black ash snowing down on me, these are things that happen only when I’m home. It’s such a weird, awesome, plantation-era anachronism. In today’s ever-more-sanitized world, the thought that people are regularly walking around with flame-throwers, setting huge swaths of land ablaze, just in the normal course of business, makes me really happy.

I hardly ever get to see a good cane burn these days, though. Oahu hasn’t had regular cane fires since 1996, when Waialua Sugar Mill shut down operations, and today, the HC&S sugar mill in Puunene is the last one operating in the state, the only remaining vestige of Hawaii’s once-dominant sugar industry.

Not everyone shares my burning love. A Maui group that calls itself “Stop Cane Burning on Maui” has been protesting the practice with roadside sign-waving and a website that details the ill effects of cane smoke. Their tag line: “Our kids have asthma.” This past September, the group gathered more than 8,700 signatures for an anti-cane-burning petition it then delivered to the state Department of Health, and there’s even been talk of a class-action lawsuit.

Now, I don’t doubt that some people encounter real problems when inhaling smoke, and I certainly don’t hate little children with asthma, but I do think that Maui would be worse off without HC&S and its old-fashioned fires. My own, admittedly selfish reason for defending cane burning is aesthetic—it’s a sight and a smell that’s integral to the island’s identity, and Maui just wouldn’t be the same without it—but there’s another, more grown-up reason: HC&S is the seventh largest employer in the county, providing jobs to 800 people. On its website, HC&S says it’s been searching for years, unsuccessfully, for practical alternatives to burning, which sounds eminently believable.

At this point, we may have to accept that cane fires come part and parcel with the industry, and that clearing the air would mean getting rid of the last large-scale agricultural crop Hawaii produces. I’m all for boutique-style farming, the kind that happens up in Kula, in Waimanalo, and in Hamakua, but there’s little chance that the 38,000 acres currently devoted to sugar production in Maui would be replaced by smaller farms. Rezoning seems more likely—meaning suburbs, not crops.

And it’s not like we haven’t got another, more serious air quality issue to worry about. As it happens, by the time the state Department of Health got that boo-to-burning petition, it had already been looking into the matter of cane fires. The very next month, it released preliminary results from the first phase of a study on the health effects of sugar cane smoke on Maui. The study tracked the rate of prescriptions being fulfilled by Maui pharmacies for respiratory and eye irritation ailments on days when cane was being burned, compared with other days.

There was a difference: The data showed that on burn days, a slightly higher percentage of the total reported cases came from downwind areas: 13 percent compared with the normal 11 percent. On the other hand, the Department of Health said the variation was not statistically significant, given the relatively small sample size, and said that the total number of reported respiratory and eye irritation ailments was actually lower on burn days—probably because burning is prohibited on hazy, voggy days. Turns out vog is a bigger health threat than cane smoke. Now if we could just wave signs to protest Kilauea.