By editorial board • 

May disastrous Maui wildfire serve as a wakeup call here

What happens in Maui doesn’t stay in Maui. That’s particularly true when you’re talking about the highest domestic wildfire death toll in more than a century — 114 and counting — and you live in a notoriously fire-prone state on the nation’s heavily forested western flank. What happened in Maui has, in fact, happened here just three years ago.

Fires like the one that incinerated Maui’s historic indigenous capital of Lahaina laid waste to the Oregon communities of Detroit, Gates, Phoenix and Talent, killing 11 people, destroying more than 3,000 homes and burning more than 1 million acres. And great as that devastation was, it paled in comparison to that wreaked in Northern California the same summer.

So what went wrong in Maui and how can we learn from it?

Spoiler alert: It all revolves around human action or inaction. Yes, it’s true. We are, in fact, our own worst enemy.

The initial groundwork was laid in the 1800s, when colonial invaders stripped and filled untold acres of lush Maui wetlands to create vast pineapple and sugarcane plantations.

When the fruit and sugar operations played out, a new wave of human entrepreneurs replanted the land in invasive grasses, exploiting their aggressive nature and explosive growth to produce a virtually inexhaustible supply of cattle feed. And groundwater was drawn down to serve human enterprises.

Meanwhile, human pioneers ignited an industrial revolution by learning to harness the power of burning fossil fuels. In the process, sad to say, they began to make the globe increasingly hotter and drier.

Hawaii’s average temperature has risen 2 degrees since 1950 and the pace is increasingly exponentially. As a result, a goodly portion of Maui was gripped in drought when the initial fire broke out about 6:30 the morning of Aug. 8.

That should resonate here in Oregon, where we’ve been battling drought for years.

Unfortunately, the trees that broke up Maui expanse of invasive grasslands, predominantly blue eucalyptus, had largely fallen victim to invasive tortoise and eucalyptus snout beetles. It had been well known for years that the dead trees and highly flammable grasses posed a clear and present fire danger, but most of the land was in private ownership that balked at the expense.

Because it lies in active hurricane and volcano zones, Maui is blessed with an extensive siren system tested on a regular basis. But because the system is designed to warn of flooding rather than fire, it was not activated.

Lahaina is served by only two roads, both of which quickly became clogged with fire crews rushing in and tourists and residents rushing out. The surest escape turned out to be the sea.

Category 4 Hurricane Dora was whipping Maui’s tinder dry grasses with 80 mile an hour winds at the time, leading to declaration of a red alert for fire danger. But Hawaiian Electric didn’t shut off power until about three hours after a wind-downed power line apparently ignited the fire that came to sweep the island.

Fire crews declared the blaze extinguished about 9 a.m. and left the scene. Unmonitored, it later rekindled to begin wreaking its havoc.

According to authoritative accounts, the initial fire response was slow and chaotic, as wind-whipped spot fires began to break out in the dry brush at multiple points. Water soon ran short, and system overseers were slow to tap other resources available to them in an emergency.

Like other states occupying America’s parched West, Oregon shares many of the same challenges, along with others. The common denominator seems to be doing a great job of documenting them and a lousy job of addressing them.

One glaring example here is failure to thin trees and clear undergrowth.

We talk, but we don’t act. And sad to say, decisive action is what’s called for as climate change raises the stakes on an almost daily basis.

We’re just a stroke of fate short of joining Maui in mourning. Here’s hoping Maui’s misfortune shocks us into action in time.


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