Wildfires Have Long Threatened Hawai‘i; Will Prevention Become A Priority? 

Climate experts warned of wildfire dangers for more than a decade before the August fires devastated Maui. 

By Robbie Dingeman

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Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

In the wake of overwhelming death tolls, harrowing survivor stories and the heartbreaking devastation of Lahaina, Hawai‘i’s top wildfire experts got angry. As co-executive director of the nonprofit Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization, Elizabeth Pickett spent 16 years collaborating, educating and encouraging prevention before wildfires erupted on Aug. 8 in Lahaina, Kula and Kīhei. “We’ve been shouting it from the rooftops for 16 years; no one believed us,” Pickett says. “This is a human-caused disaster exacerbated by changing climate factors.”


Worldwide, scientists have repeatedly warned that climate change is cranking up risk factors: that humans burning fossil fuels make the planet warmer, and that hotter temperatures increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and flooding. Globally, the summer of 2023 saw record-breaking high temperatures, and major wildfires tore through Canada, Greece, California, Nevada and Maui.


Hawai‘i: 1,000 Fires Each Year


In Hawai‘i, wildfires are on the rise and growing more severe. Every year since 2018, Pickett says an average of 1,000 wildfires have burned across the Islands, fueled by fast-burning nonnative grasses. Those invasive grasses now cover at least a million acres statewide, more than a quarter of all land in Hawai‘i. “We know that things are drying out, and we know that we’re facing more drought, our fuels are more primed and ready to ignite,” she says.


The wildfires that crushed Lahaina left a path of profound loss in a town that once served as the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom—at least 115 deaths and more than 2,200 destroyed structures, including homes, businesses, schools, churches and historic landmarks.


At the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, board chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey mourns the immeasurable losses on her home island of Maui. “The fires of today are in part due to the climate crisis, a history of colonialism in our Islands, and the loss of our right to steward our ‘āina and wai,” she says. “There is so much history that will be forever lost, a history that tethers all of us, young and old, not only to the ‘āina, but to ourselves and to each other.”

Leilani Fire
In 2022, the Leilani fire on Hawai‘i Island scorched 17,000 acres. Photo: Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources

There Were Warnings

For years, both Pickett, who is based on Hawai‘i Island, and Clay Trauernicht, a specialist in wildland fire science and management at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, have told elected officials, business executives, community leaders and others about the tremendous, and rapidly growing, dangers of wildfires. Backed by more than a century of data, they developed maps (see below) that show West Maui in the highest risk area. Many other communities across the Islands, including some of O‘ahu’s most densely populated areas, are likewise considered at high risk for wildfires.


While no place was hit as hard as Lahaina in August 2023, firefighters across Maui and Hawai‘i Island were fighting other fast-moving fires. “Six fires were burning at the same time as Lahaina,” Pickett says. “The four neighborhoods next to me were evacuated on the Big Island. This is a statewide problem.”


In 2022, the Leilani fire burned 17,000 acres along Hawai‘i Island’s Saddle Road and Waikoloa. In 2021, the massive Mana Road fire burned 40,000 acres on the slopes of Maunakea above Waimea, also on Hawai‘i Island. In 2018, 16,000 acres burned at Waikoloa on Hawai‘i Island. On O‘ahu, in 2018, 6,000 acres burned on the Wai‘anae Coast. “Three valleys were burning at once,” Trauernicht recalls.


For some West Maui residents, the Aug. 8 fire was eerily similar to fires five years before. On Aug. 24, 2018, Hurricane Lane sparked a fire across Kaua‘ula Valley that destroyed 21 houses, 27 cars, burned 2,100 acres and left $4.3 million in damage. In the weeks after, the Lahaina News reported “it was a miracle that Lahaina survived.” The story included residents praising first responders while asking the same questions posed after the recent Lahaina fires: Why were no sirens sounded? When does Maui Electric Co. shut off power to live wires? What is the plan to prevent future fires?


Humans Cause Fires

As the tragic extent of the Aug. 8 Maui disaster unfolded, both experts spoke more bluntly than ever. Like climate change, Pickett says, “wildfire is not a natural hazard. We have converted our landscape to be fire-prone; it didn’t come that way.”


In Hawai‘i, Pickett says fewer than 1% of wildfires can be attributed to lava or lightning strikes. “We are a fire-prone state; we need to be careful,” she says. At the time this story went to print, the cause of the West Maui fire had not been officially determined, but multiple groups blamed live power lines from utility poles, knocked down by hurricane-force winds, for sparking fires that led to the devastation.


In multiple lawsuits filed on behalf of Maui fire victims, Hawaiian Electric Co., the parent company of Maui Electric, is accused of negligence in not mitigating the potential for catastrophic fires despite warnings, for failing to maintain its electrical grid and other business practices that cost lives. The lawsuits, including one filed by Maui County, says HECO failed to shut off power despite red-flag warnings from the National Weather Service that live wires could start wildfires amid exceptionally high winds from Hurricane Dora.


But HECO disputes those claims. In a news release Aug. 27, HECO President and CEO Shelee Kimura said live wires could not have sparked the devastation because the most destructive fire on the afternoon of Aug. 8 happened after power lines had been de-energized for six hours. “There was no electricity flowing through the wires in the area or anywhere else on the West Maui coast,” she said, adding that the company has internal records to back this, and has informed federal investigators of its findings.


Residents shot video in the morning of fires starting and restarting near live wires. And HECO now states that the morning fire “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.” Maui firefighters reported those fires contained by 9:55 a.m., and crews left to fight other blazes. Then HECO blames the leveling of Lahaina on what it’s calling the afternoon fire—reported at 3 p.m.—which Maui firefighters could not contain so “it spread out of control toward Lahaina.”


Power Policy

Questions remain, however, about whether HECO took wildfire threats seriously enough prior to the fires, amid ample warnings.


At an Aug. 14 news briefing, Kimura says HECO, which supplies power to 95% of Hawai‘i’s residents, did not have a power shut-off policy in place and that it did not want to cut power to water pumps that firefighters use or to those depending on medical equipment. “We, like most utilities, don’t have that program,” she said, referring to shut-off protocols. “And it’s worth noting that even in places where this has been used, it’s controversial and it’s not universally accepted.”


The Maui Department of Water Supply has said it routinely uses diesel generators to back up several of its Lahaina water facilities during power outages. However, on Aug. 8, Maui County sent out a news release that asked West Maui to conserve water because “power outages are impacting the ability to pump water.” Maui firefighters also have said they were slowed by loss of water pressure to battle the blazes due to “so many pipes downstream rupturing” as fire consumed the area.

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The Lahaina waterfront on Aug. 11 where a blue car stands out in the ashes left behind. Photo: Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources

“This thing was avoidable, and people should be angry about it.”

—Clay Trauernicht

A Horrific Wake-Up Call

Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green has estimated Maui’s disaster damage to be at least $6 billion. In the 2023 session of the Hawai‘i State Legislature, Hawai‘i State Fire Protection Forester Mike Walker had pushed for a bill requesting $1.5 million a year for two years to control invasive grasses to reduce the threat of wildfires, but the measure died in committee. In March 2018, both Pickett and Trauernicht testified at the state Legislature about the growing wildfire risks, but only a handful of lawmakers attended the hearing and no action was taken. After the tragedy on Maui, they’ll be watching to see if fire safety will finally be properly funded: “Is this enough to show that it’s worth investing?” Trauernicht asks.


During interviews, both Pickett and Trauernicht struggled with anger rooted in grief over the enormity of the disaster. The fire maps they first created in 2014 show exactly which areas on Maui, O‘ahu, Hawai‘i Island, Kaua‘i and Moloka‘i are at high risk for wildfires. They include most of the developed western coastal communities across the primary Hawaiian Islands and other scattered spots.


On Maui, the maps show high risk not only in Lahaina, Kā‘anapali, Kīhei and Upcountry, but also in urban Wailuku and the southern coast. On O‘ahu, those areas include the Mākaha, Wai‘anae and Nānākuli coasts and upland areas, which have been fire hot spots. But the island’s high-risk zones extend to some of urban Honolulu’s most densely populated areas, much of the East Honolulu coastline and upland area, Hale‘iwa and Waialua on the North Shore, much of Kāne‘ohe and part of Kailua.


Although most wildfires are caused by accident, including from fireworks and campfires, risks can be reduced by managing land that has become overgrown with invasive fire-prone grasses, which serve as fuel for fires, Pickett says. Landowners, elected officials and businesses can mitigate risks through more vigilant land management, Trauernicht adds.


Care for Land, People

“This thing was avoidable, and people should be angry about it,” he says, pointing to a post-plantation era that left behind vast fire-prone grasslands ready to ignite. “The Maui fires—as with nearly all fires in Hawai‘i—are a result of failing to care for land. Changing that begins with caring for people.”


In 2016, Alexander & Baldwin Inc. announced that the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. plantation on Maui was closing. In 2018, the company sold 41,000 acres of land to Mahi Pono, a farming venture of Pomona Farming and Canada’s Public Sector Investment Board, which plans to grow diversified crops there. (By August 2023, Mahi Pono reported planting 1.8 million trees on about 10,000 acres.)


But three years after the plantation closed, Maui fire officials described 2019 as “the year of fire.” They said that thousands of acres of former sugar land provided fuel for fires and compounded problems caused by the island’s already “dry, windy, and hot conditions.” “Boom, 17,000 acres of Maui burned, right in the footprint,” Trauernicht says, “and we’re sitting there—‘What the fuck?’ What else can we do to show that this is a problem?”


For more than a decade, both experts testified repeatedly for prevention funding, warning of dangers to Lahaina and other communities. And they find no satisfaction that this disaster might serve as a horrific wake-up call, one that Trauernicht describes as “beyond anything we could have possibly imagined as far as the worst-case scenario.”


At an Aug. 10 news briefing, the governor was asked what changes or preparations had been made by the state in response to earlier warnings from wildfire experts of the increasing danger—and after Hurricane Lane sparked similar fires in 2018, which Lahaina narrowly escaped. He responded: “We’ve never experienced a wildfire that affected a city like this before.” Looking ahead, he said, “I do think that as we rebuild, we’ll have to take into consideration a lot more fire safety. … Climate change is here.”

Big Changes Can Make a Difference

While residents can take steps to make their properties more fire-resistant, Trauernicht and Pickett say elected officials, large landowners not focused on agriculture or conservation, utility companies and others who oversee property can make the largest impact against fire. They believe much can be done at every level to prevent future devastation.


“There’s no one silver bullet,” Pickett says. “There’s no one entity or any certain government agency or sector or population group that holds all the responsibility. But officials, communities and individuals can each play a part. The bigger picture is that our subdivisions are being developed and designed without fire safety in mind. So it’s left up to our nonprofits and volunteerism by citizens to retrofit, and that’s unacceptable. We need development codes and standards that are fire-safe from the start.”


By investing in roads, water access and community retrofits and enforcing development codes, Pickett says fewer people will be at risk. Now, she hopes decision-makers and voters will demand these changes. “We know how to reduce fire risk,” she says, but “we don’t have the authority or the funds to make it happen. … It’s going to take legislation, it’s going to take money, it’s going to take enforcement of code.”


Meanwhile, much of the state is looking at Hawaiian Electric Co. to explain why wildfire risk mitigation hasn’t been a high priority and what can be done to prevent a similar disaster. On Aug. 30, President Joe Biden pledged $95 million to strengthen Hawai‘i’s electric grid, and HECO subsequently said the funds would pay for half of the $190 million it requested from the Hawai‘i Public Utilities Commission in 2022 to upgrade its power grid to better withstand wildfires and other climate change disruptions. The federal funds will bolster critical transmission lines, including two on Maui; support hospitals, water facilities, emergency response and the military; replace wooden poles with fire-resistant material; deploy technology to help reduce wildfire risk; remove hazardous trees; and move the Maui control center to a more resilient location.


In her statement, Kimura says the “funding significantly alleviates the cost burden on customers as we intensify work to strengthen our grids on Maui and across the islands we serve.” In 2022, the company estimated the plan would cost customers on O‘ahu an additional 33 cents per month on their electric bills, 71 cents more on Maui and 86 cents more on Hawai‘i Island.


Wildfire Warnings

In California, the state’s power company, Pacific Gas & Electric, learned a costly lesson about not heeding wildfire warnings. Since 2017, the company has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires that destroyed towns and killed 113 people, leading to PG&E declaring bankruptcy and negotiating to pay more than $13.5 billion to wildfire victims. Since then, the utility has implemented extensive wildfire prevention plans across California, announced it will spend billions of dollars to put power lines underground, put in place a power shut-off program during natural disasters and emerged from bankruptcy. The HECO request to the PUC cited the California fires as evidence that action was needed.

Fire Risk Map Enhanced Sr Vor Vector

How Did Hawai‘i Get Here?

To understand why Hawai‘i is at such risk for wildfires, it’s important to look at our state’s “deeper history of plantation agriculture, how it emerged, how it was built off of colonization and theft of land,” Trauernicht says. “It really makes us confront these historical injustices and really think about how we can be smarter about the ways in which we use land.”


Historians point to Hawai‘i’s thriving verdant and productive agricultural community before Western contact in 1778. Lahaina, in particular, was lush with natural resources, including fishponds and fields of kalo. Water flowed so plentifully for decades that it was sometimes referred to as the Venice of the Pacific. But the ouster of Native Hawaiian leaders, up to and including the 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, led to a shift from using land to sustain residents to producing and exporting commodity crops to enrich the power brokers and plantation owners who took over.


That shift to growing sugar cane and pineapple on plantations—which employed immigrant workers from across the globe—and ranching also cleared native forests, making the land more prone to drought, Trauernicht says. At its peak in 1930, sugar cane covered 250,000 acres, he says, but by the 1950s, plantations began to close as workers demanded higher wages and production shifted to countries with cheaper labor. After plantations closed, sugar and pineapple fields were replaced by invasive fountain and guinea grasses, which spread unchecked, Trauernicht explains. Now, those grasses are fuel for fires.


Protecting Communities

Both experts say that focusing resources going forward can help protect communities. “We have the potential and knowledge and know-how to transform these abandoned agricultural lands,” Trauernicht says. Some landowners, ranchers and trusts are already managing for ecosystem health and community safety, Pickett says, but others aren’t. “First, they had the properties for agriculture, then that was no longer lucrative. So now they’re holding these properties for real estate,” while allowing the overgrowth of invasive plants.


Lindsey, from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, blames modern land management practices for turning the once-verdant Lahaina area into a fire-prone tinderbox: “The same Western forces that tried to erase us as a people now threaten our survival with their destructive practices,” she says.

Fire Graph

Slowing the Flames

As climate change dials up dangers, Pickett says the government can and must make communities safer from fire. She says lives can be saved by modifying roads to allow people to escape in emergencies, providing at least two ways in and out of communities to prevent deadly bottlenecks. Maui officials have said fallen power lines blocked scores of drivers desperately trying to escape the fast-moving flames. She also says communities need adequate firefighting and emergency crew access and water supplies.


Both fire experts praise firefighters, residents and community leaders for finding creative solutions to combat wildfires and restore wetlands. Farmers, communities and conservationists, including some with the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, are part of initiatives that include building kalo terraces that can serve as fire breaks and raising sheep to eat invasive grass.


Although wildfires are not solely caused by climate change, George Washington University professor Lisa Benton-Short says decision-
makers must better prepare communities for such extreme weather as hurricanes and very hot temperatures and to become more resilient not just to wildfires, but tsunamis, floods and other disasters. “Many places are going to be vulnerable to things that they’re not used to seeing,” she says.


Benton-Short expects utility companies to increasingly be required to move utility lines underground. While it’s too early to say whether this will happen in Lahaina, she hopes leaders will resist pressure to build back as quickly as possible and will instead seek ways to create more resilient communities with the help of Native Hawaiians and other residents.

Lahaina Fire Lahaina Bypass Road Memorial
Lahaina bypass road memorial. Photo: Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources

“Many places are going to be vulnerable to things that they’re not used to seeing.”

— Lisa Benton-Short

Create Helper Hubs

Moving forward, Hawai‘i can consider strategies from other communities, Benton-Short says. In Washington, D.C., officials created climate vulnerability maps showing the heat history of different areas, including where elderly and child care centers are, and what resources might be needed in those areas during emergencies.


In Baltimore, an abandoned fire station was turned into a solar-powered community center that serves as one of seven resiliency hubs designed to help those within walking distance. The hubs, created in partnership with community organizations, provide a place to find out information, charge cell phones, use two-way radios, refrigerate medicine and to act as cooling and heating centers; services can be stepped up at the hubs during extreme weather events and other emergencies.


Call to Action

Now, as Maui rebuilds with a spotlight on the staggering loss, it seems more likely that wildfires and other climate issues will be a priority. “I would just say that it feels like criminal negligence to put people in harm’s way and not do anything about it when we could,” Pickett says.


She hopes residents will demand change and action: “We need to settle for no less.”

What Can We Do?


How to Prepare for a Fire

  • Come up with a home disaster evacuation plan and practice it.
  • Have working fire extinguishers on your property.
  • If you smell smoke or see fire, check on the danger right away.
  • Determine where smoke or heat is coming from and navigate a safe escape path for yourself and those around you.
  • Don’t wait to be told to evacuate, increasing the risk of getting stuck in traffic as fires move fast. Videos from Lahaina showed flames rocketing at an estimated mile a minute. In disasters, most fatalities happen because people waited, then got trapped.
  • Assemble an emergency supply kit that’s ready to go with medicine, drinking water and other essential supplies.


For more tips, see the Ready, Set, Go! guide at hawaiiwildfire.org.


Ways to Prevent Fires

  • Don’t drive over dry grass; sparks from an engine or even radiant heat can start a fire.
  • Don’t weld or use grinding tools near dry grass or with gusty winds.
  • Reconsider any use of fireworks.
  • Make sure campfires are out cold before walking away from embers, as they can blow and reignite, especially in dry areas.
  • Demand more wildfire preparation from government leaders and power brokers.
  • Don’t toss cigarettes from vehicles.


Making Your Home Safer From Fire

  • Clean up anything that can fuel fire, including debris and dead leaves.
  • When installing or repairing roofs, consider replacing wood shake or shingles with metal or tiles.
  • Trim tree branches, keeping them at least 10 feet from structures and other trees.
  • Create a 5-footwide area around the house with drought-resistant landscaping or materials, such as stone or gravel, that won’t burn.
  • Plant Native Hawaiian and other drought-tolerant plants. On O‘ahu, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply offers many resources.