The risk of unprecedented fires is primarily due to poor land management, a plantation-era legacy.

Over the last month we have grieved the unprecedented and disastrous wildfires on Maui. We continue to grieve, and as we move forward it is important we take meaningful action to prevent these situations in the future.

We have watched blame be directed at a wide range of targets and there are multiple places that blame could be appropriately directed. I wholeheartedly understand the desire to address the cause of this disaster and for there to be accountability.

Born and raised on Kauai, I was educated in Australia where I received my science degree (with a major in wildlife management), and where fires are a part of life, our curriculum and the ecology.

For years now, I have been seriously concerned about the regrowth of invasive (often highly fire-prone) species that now dominate our landscape.

For over 150 years plantation interests controlled much of our lands, cleared the native ecosystems, diverted the water systems, planted and cleared, planted and cleared and then abandoned us. They left behind land used in liquidation, never restored or replanted and huge swaths of land abandoned and primed for establishment by pioneering invasive (fire-prone) species.

Fountain grass is known as a “flashy fuel,” due to the speed in which it burns (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

The risk of unprecedented fires because of this poor land management is a threat throughout our islands. On Kauai, I am also concerned that large areas have been overrun by highly flammable (ethanol-heavy) weeds. Not just grasses, but bushes and trees (often from places where fires are more common) that provide dangerous levels of “fuel” to drive wildfires.

These species vary from place to place, but throughout our islands the theme is the same, invasives have completely dominated our landscape and radically changed our ecology. Roadsides and fields once limited in vegetation, are now lined with haole koa (Leucaena leucocephala), a highly flammable tree that is one of the world’s most prolific weeds, and other invasive species.

In some areas 15-20 year regrowth has gone unchecked and even touches electric wires, presenting huge fire risk.

A Perfect Storm

When you combine the poor land management practices that resulted from the plantation occupation of our lands, the loss of wetlands, traditional and customary agricultural systems, our natural protections and the loss of our water and then you add that to a very wet spring (lots of growth) and a very wet summer, the abnormally strong winds and above ground power lines, there is a perfect storm for a dangerous wildfire.

As we look to the future, we must look holistically at the restoration of our lands and these systems and returning the important environmental and ecological services they provided.

We must look to the past for the direction of where we go in the future. We must restore our native forests and water systems that feed critical wetlands and traditional and agricultural landscapes.

We must look holistically at the restoration of our lands.

Indigenous ahupuaa systems manage natural resources for abundance, these systems are informed by an understanding of the value of protecting ecological services and working with the water and land.

We must support the ongoing revitalization of this knowledge and practices to prevent these types of disasters.

We need to look to history and adjust our sails for the future if we want to protect ourselves and build our resilience in these growingly uncertain times.

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