In July 2019, an 8000-acre brush fire, fueled by an abundance of dry vegetation and an oppressive heat wave, consumed Central Maui. The blaze began as a roadside fire and spread rapidly with help from the wind. Within only a few hours, it had jumped across a six-lane highway and forced the shutdown of Kahului Airport and the evacuation of residents and visitors. By the time firefighters managed to contain it, the fire had become Maui’s largest on record. On average, 17,000 acres, or 0.4 percent of Hawaiʻi, burns annually, a larger percentage of the statewide land area than the percentage burned in the entire continental United States. The Maui fire alone accounted for nearly half of that number.
For Dr. Clay Trauernicht, a wildfire extension specialist with the University of Hawaiʻi and project leader of the Pacific Fire Exchange, the severity and speed of the Maui fire is a strong indicator of the global heating trend.
Trauernicht explains that, normally, “in the evening we get ‘humidity recovery,’ so the plants [regain] moisture from the air. The increased moisture results in a ‘laying down’ of the fire,” allowing firefighters to gain control as the wetter vegetation slows the spread. However, as climate change pushes average temperatures higher, the daytime heat stretches later into the evening, preventing plants from regaining moisture. This allows fires to burn faster and longer, making them harder to contain.
In addition to hotter temperatures, drought is a another major factor that contributes to devastating wildfires. Dr. Abby Frazier, a research fellow at the East-West Center, studies precipitation and long-term drought patterns in Hawaiʻi.
“Droughts are lasting longer, they’re occurring more often, and they’re getting more severe. Those are the trends we’ve found in the last hundred years,” Frazier says. Based on future climate projections for the state, she expects that drought-prone leeward areas, which are already vulnerable to fire, will see the most severe impacts. However, all climate zones should prepare for a drier future, and with it, the expanding threat of wildfire. As climate change worsens drought conditions and increases heat throughout the Pacific, experts like Trauernicht and Frazier expect to see an increasing number of events like the Maui fire.
One reason droughts are so serious is that they stress native ecosystems, making them vulnerable to pests and disease. Pacific Island wildfires are predominantly fueled by invasive grasses and shrubs which burn easily and intensely. This is especially a problem in Guam, where 3 percent of its land burns annually, the vast majority during grassland fires.
“These [invasive] grasslands burn up to the edge of the forest and catch the forest on fire, and if it’s a native forest, it now becomes replaced by this exotic grassland. And this is a common issue not only in Hawaiʻi, but across the Pacific,” explains Michael Walker, the Hawaiʻi State Fire Protection Forester for the Division of Forestry and Wildlife. This process, known as the grass-fire cycle, expands the range of fire-prone land, making it easier for new, potentially worse fires to start and spread. Native forests burn more slowly, helping to contain fires, but they also recover more slowly and are easily overrun by the invasive species which take only a few months to regenerate after a burn.
“If it were only a problem of warming and drying, it would be a much more reasonable problem to tackle, but with invasive species, we have what ecologists like to call ‘a wicked problem,’” says Dr. Christian Giardina, a forest ecologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Suppressing invasive species, restoring native ecosystems, and understanding fuel dynamics are among many important considerations in trying to break the grass-fire cycle, says Giardina. Part of Giardina’s research involves vegetation and fire mapping to identify regions of concern, allowing land managers to prioritize the greatest threats.
One major concern is agricultural land abandoned after industrial farming. No longer managed by the agricultural companies, the fallow land is taken over in large swaths by the invasive species. Prior to 2019, fire experts already regarded Maui as a ticking time bomb due to its massive tracts of fallow farmland, but this is also a problem on many islands where industrial agriculture has disrupted native ecosystems. According to Trauernicht, creating fuel breaks, which are long, narrow stretches of land cleared of fire-prone vegetation, is critical to reducing fire risk since the break disrupts the spread of fire. That alone is not enough, however. Using ungulates to graze down the abandoned land, or outright repurposing the land, is also necessary.
Another concern is the source of ignition. “All fires are started by people in this region,” says Julian Dendy, a consultant for the Coral Reef Research Foundation in Palau. Dendy specializes in forest conservation and has studied a number of Pacific Islands including Palau, Babeldaob, Guam, and Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. Fire is frequently used by hunters to attract deer to the tender regrowth and to clear trails. Farming and household burns, and even arson, are also common issues, Dendy says. “In my opinion, public awareness and education is the most cost effective and practical factor in wildfire prevention.”
For Giardina, this presents a ray of hope: “To some extent, we know it’s preventable.” In order to build a more sustainable future, though, Giardina emphasizes the need for a change in mindset. “We need to move away from the idea of land as a commodity to a more sacred relationship with place.” Part of this involves shifting from top-down agency models to more community-based systems that get the public directly engaged in environmental stewardship, cultivating a stronger sense of kinship to the land that is their home.
Many seem to share this philosophy. “All of our work is very much people-oriented because we can have these grand ideas, but without people coming together, especially around a shared common interest, we can’t really do any of the work,” says Andrea “Nani” Barretto. She is one of two executive directors at the Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO), an organization that offers resources to communities seeking to improve their fire resilience. In addition to a public messaging campaign on wildfire awareness, one of the key programs supported by HWMO is the Firewise Community Program, a nationwide grassroots movement to improve wildfire safety within local communities. HWMO assists with the Firewise application process, first conducting a hazard assessment and report. The community then creates an action plan describing the ways they intend to address the existing fire hazards, and updates the action plan with progress and new goals each year.
In Babeldaob, Yap, and Guam, communities have worked together to increase the number of fuel breaks and restore native vegetation. “In Yap, community-based fire plans and projects were developed with Yap Forestry, which have resulted in shaded fuel breaks containing many culturally and monetarily high-value tree species plantings, as well as community groups who sometimes manually suppress fires,” says Dendy. “Guam Forestry has massive landscape restoration plans and projects in effect, including fire breaks, and [they have] planted thousands of trees with community partners, including hundreds of students.”
Across the Pacific, people are recognizing the vulnerability of the land that sustains them and taking a personal role in caring for it. Whether through forest restoration, fuel clean-ups, or improving fire safety, Pacific Island communities have shown their resilience and come together against the complex threat of wildfire. Facing an uncertain future, these efforts prove people still have the power to create change.
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