Lesson from Maui

Wildfire ravaged the community of Lahaina on the Hawaiian Island of Maui, and the death toll mounts. Are there any lessons to be learned from this tragedy?

The Lahaina fire offers some insights into why the current Forest Service policy of focusing on fuel reduction is misguided.

The wildfire began in grasslands and, driven by near hurricane-force winds, the blaze rapidly ignited wooden homes in Lahaina. The fire then mushroomed into a house-to-house blaze. Since burning structures emit more heat than wildfire, a domino effect followed that consumed at least a thousand homes.

 

Regrowth of vegetation after a prescribed burn has increased the amount of fine fuels like grass and shrubs on the ground. Photo George Wuerthner 

First, the Lahaina fire started in grasslands. About half of all wildfires are burning in non-forested habitats like sagebrush, grasslands, and chaparral, for which logging/thinning has no effect. The Marshall Colorado and Denton Montana fires were grassland blazes that led to home losses.

But the biggest problem is that extreme fire weather, particularly blazes driven by high winds, is impossible to stop. Since nearly all large blazes that threaten communities occur under extreme fire weather, it behooves us to ask whether the current public policy of fuel reductions is effective.

The answer is no amount of fuel reduction is effective under extreme fire weather with wind-driven conditions. Embers lofted by winds even ignited boats on the ocean in Lahaina’s harbor. If the sea with zero fuel isn’t an effective fire break, reducing the trees by logging won’t preclude wildfire spread.

Another problem is it’s impossible to predict where a wildfire will occur and the majority of all fuel reductions never encounter a blaze.

So even if fuel reductions worked (a questionable assumption) logging/thinning results in collateral ecosystem damage, including the spread of fire-prone weeds, disturbance of wildlife, removal of biomass, loss of carbon storage, and the creation of roads, increasing human access and ignitions.

After agriculture, logging has reduced carbon storage more than any other human activity. On-going logging emits carbon that exacerbates climate warming, thus increasing the likelihood of wildfire ignition and spread.

Logging and wood products production releases significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Photo George Wuerthner 

In Europe, most homes are built of bricks, concrete, stone, and other fire-resistant materials. Building with steel, brick, adobe, and other materials is superior to exposed wood in new construction.

This home that survived the Lahiana blaze had recently been renovated with a metal roof, and stones that surrounded the house foundation. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Given these realities, reducing home ignition should be the preferred public policy. Renovating homes by installing metal or other non-burnable roofing material, screening vents, and removing vegetation immediately next to the structure can significantly enhance the house’s survivability. Encouraging non-wood home construction could further enhance community safety.

In the end, fuel reductions (other than immediately adjacent to homes and communities) are ineffective policies. We should shift the fire policy focus on the house and work outward.


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Comments

  1. Mary McAllister Avatar

    Shade is the most benign means of weed control. Shade also keeps the forest floor moist, which retards ignition and slows progress of the fire. If a wildfire hazard mitigation project doesn’t keep the canopy intact, it doesn’t deserve to be called wildfire hazard mitigation.

  2. Makuye Avatar
    Makuye

    The grasslands had been sugarcane fields during MOST of the 20th century. The canefields had ben laced with dirt roading for harvest.
    North and south of Lahaina, had been more exploited by developers, Lahaina remaining “historical”
    Lahian enviorns were somewhat in the rainshadow of the West Maui mountains, but not quite as dry as the Kihei-south coast in Haleakala’s rainshadow.

    You merelly live during a period when human monocroppingwas being reduced in Hawaiian Islands, and teh former irriagation, moonocropping corporations went elsewhere, with some profit from selling the most desirable human occupation land areas for those giant developments you see, some golf courses, but mostly large resort hotels and large tourist service industries.

    I would not have it burn, though photos from erly 1900s , excepting only the canefields and in some areas pineapple fields, as in the central valley of Oahu, , show a more valid, FAR less populated landscape.
    It was WWII that introduced military in huge excess, whose veterans then moved there. Previous to that, of course, were the cheap Japanes and Chinese labor that constructed and harvested the irrigated monocultural crops.
    Hawaiian Island have been a lesson in the hell that missionaries and other exploiters perpetrate.
    Even in late 20th c. Maui had not gone completely crazy in “development” – but the grave ill of human overbloom and exploitation first destroyed this land, not a mere grassfire.

  3. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    And now after this disaster, the residents have to get thru a fight over water sources!

  4. Robert Sheridan Avatar
    Robert Sheridan

    As Right as you are on this issue of Active Forest Mismanagment, the question remains what actionable plan do we pursue. As a veteran wildland fire dog, I recommend we fight fire with fire and declare a incident,then proceed from there under the time tested strategic, tactical and operational leadership of the Incident Command System. This is also my recommendation for stabilizing and recovering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

  5. Mike Sauber Avatar
    Mike Sauber

    In more arid areas, building homes with adobe makes so much sense. I made a bermed passive solar adobe home when first moving to New Mexico. The feel of the home was one of security and grounding. Quiet, massive, totally fireproof except for window and door frames. Temperatures were very stable as well. The thermal lag from outside temps would allow using cooling features at non-peak times (and it would be naturally cooler as well allowing for minimal if any need for cooling or heating.

  6. Joe Avatar
    Joe

    The Marshall Colorado and Denton Montana fires provided similar lessons. The public will never learn unless the pro-logging propaganda stops.

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It really has been a terrible shock to learn about. And then for the governor to blame climate change, in a blanket statement, when as mentioned above there have been a lot of unaddressed issues and lack of preparation that has led up to it.

Author
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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