Devastating Wildfires Threaten Hawaii: Lack of Firefighters and Dry Grasses Pose Risk

  • Historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina destroyed by swift and powerful wildfire spread by strong winds from Hurricane Lane.
  • Non-native grasses brought in for cattle grazing now pose significant fire risk in Lahaina and other parts of Hawaii.
  • Lack of firefighters and resources, along with financial constraints, hinder efforts to combat wildfires and prevent future incidents.

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The wildfire that destroyed the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina in August was both powerful and swift. Strong winds from Hurricane Lane spread the inferno across the drought-stricken landscape, engulfing the entire town within an hour. However, as “60 Minutes” discovered, similar devastating wildfires could occur in Hawaii again due to the lack of firefighters and the abundance of dry grass.

Once covered in sugar cane fields, the hills above Lahaina have been taken over by drought-resistant grasses brought in for cattle grazing since sugar production ceased in 2016. These non-native grasses, such as buffelgrass and Guinea grass from Africa, now pose a significant fire risk.

Mike Walker, the top fire protection official at the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, has been warning about the danger of non-native grasses for years. When these grasses burn, they quickly grow back due to their rapid response to water. The areas where firefighters have doused flames with water see new grass sprout up within days, and these areas are largely unmanaged.

Walker stressed the need for managed landscapes to address the fire risk. He emphasized that human intervention is necessary to solve the issue since humans are responsible for creating it.

Despite the fire hazard, Maui’s firefighters are overwhelmed and understaffed. With 60 to 70 firefighters spread across 14 fire stations, the firefighting force has remained the same for the past 20 years. The increase in population, the closure of plantations, and the presence of abandoned land further exacerbate the situation.

Hawaii’s geographic isolation poses additional challenges. While California can quickly mobilize thousands of additional firefighters and equipment from neighboring regions, Hawaii lacks such resources. It took two days to get 34 firefighters from Honolulu to Maui during the Lahaina fire, and they lacked essential equipment due to the lack of inter-island transportation.

Bobby Lee, the president of Hawaii’s International Association of Firefighters, attributed the shortage of firefighters and equipment to financial constraints. Unfortunately, it often takes a major fire like the one in Lahaina to draw attention to the issue.

Walker hopes that this fire has altered people’s perception of Hawaii’s fire risk. Before the devastating August blaze, the worst-case scenario was the loss of individual homes, not an entire historic town.

The lack of action and attention to Hawaii’s fire risk is a cause for concern. Walker emphasized that forgetting about this incident would be a mistake and highlights the need for proactive measures to prevent future devastating wildfires.

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