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Maui's wildfire spotlights Hawaii's federal support struggle

Scripps News examines enduring issues that hinder preparedness and the U.S. distribution of disaster resources among states and territories.
Maui's wildfire spotlight Hawaii's federal support struggle
Posted at 4:07 PM, Aug 19, 2023

The Hawaii wildfires are officially the state's deadliest natural disaster.

"People are found in houses in a huddle holding each other because the fire surrounded their homes before they could even get out; there was nowhere to go," said local resident Candee Olafson.

"I've ordered all available federal assets on the island, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Navy Third Fleet, and the U.S. Army, to assist local emergency response crews," said President Joe Biden.

With locals still searching through wreckage and trying to locate loved ones, many are asking: how did the damage get so bad, and was there anything that could be done to stop it? Many aspects came together to make the perfect storm for the fire.

"That's the challenging piece. So there's really no blaming anyone. You know, this was the worst possible recipe. And we are a fire-prone state," said Elizabeth Pickett, Co-Executive Director at the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. "We have very challenging topography: steep slopes, rocky slopes, no easy ways to access, no water on the landscape like pressurized water, etc. because of the geography of it."

While developed communities on the islands have easier access to roads and fire hydrants, the areas are surrounded by thousands of acres of natural wildlands.

Much of those wildlands—more than 26% of the state itself—are now dominated by invasive grass species that have rapidly grown over the last few decades as agricultural production has left the state. The grasses are particularly dry and prone to fire.

Wildfires are actually fairly common across the state, but since they've remained mostly in underdeveloped areas, they haven't caught much attention.

SEE MORE: Here's how you can help Maui residents amid deadly wildfires

And recent developments, like the invasive grass, have left many locals unaware of the growing threat.

"Even locally, because our wildfire issue has increased so much over the last few decades that a lot of people, when they first bought their home, I grew up in an area it wasn't surrounded by these fire-prone fuels, so that fire risk has grown around unprepared communities," said Pickett.

But researchers, public safety advocates, and organizations like Hawaii Wildfire Management have been sounding the alarm for years. They have called for increased resources and funding to expand community programs, education, and better management of natural resources. In a 2020 report, one consulting firm found the region where the town of Lahaina is located to be "high risk", warning that "wildfire events will continue to be an ongoing occurrence in Maui County."

"I wrote the West Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and I'm crying at night because we knew and there are a lot of projects that collectively all of our partners and ourselves have gotten done. And that's to be celebrated. But it wasn't enough. And a huge part of it is we couldn't find the money to get those things done," said Pickett.

Federal agencies have been criticized by locals in the aftermath of the fires for their slow response.

The Washington Post reported on large local operations, led by native Hawaiians in particular, to deliver supplies between islands and open shelters.

But amid the climate of cooperation on the islands, the Post reported frustrations over the lack of an official presence.

Federal government officials have noted that they have prioritized fighting the fires, housing survivors in evacuation centers, restoring utilities, and more.

FEMA has faced other criticism for its responses to natural disasters on U.S. islands and territories.

For example, a 2018 internal report found a number of significant failures and chaos in FEMA's response to the damage done in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria.

SEE MORE: Hawaiians say gov. is too quick to rebuild as they grapple with grief

Federal neglect has been a persistent issue for wildfire safety advocates in Hawaii, who say it has been a struggle to get attention to the growing threats, lack of infrastructure, and necessary resources.

The need for a massive expansion of wildfire prevention efforts goes beyond raising awareness for federal agencies seeking funding.

Hawaii faces an unusual obstacle since most of its land is privately owned; less than a third is federal land. That's a contrast compared to other states like California, where 57% of its forests are federally owned.

"We have two national parks. So our federal partners are doing a lot of really great work on their lands. But a lot of the rest is all private," said Pickett.

But there is still a large gap in awareness among private landowners about wildfire safety protocols and prevention techniques.

Rep. Jill Tokuda told CBS' Face the Nation that the state's digital alarm system did not go off in the emergency. But she pointed out that the bigger problem is whether citizens would have known what it meant.

"If you turned on your phone, if you turned on a radio, if you even could remember things were out at that particular point, you would not know what the crisis was. You might think it's a tsunami, by the way, which is our first instinct," said Tokuda.

CBS’ Margaret Brennan: Yes.

Tokuda: You would run towards land, which, in this case, would be towards fire.

The best time for landscape management, infrastructure building, and awareness campaigns is before disaster strikes. Unfortunately, with the Maui wildfires, disaster may have to be the catalyst to better prepare for future catastrophes.

"It always could have come into communities, and we've been doing everything we can to keep our story well; let's keep it that way. And so now we actually will be using photos from this fire to show that. Yes, it does. A lot of the complaints we get are, 'This doesn't really apply to me. You're using mainland photos to show us what could happen to a community.' And I would have preferred to have kept it that way," said Pickett.

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