5 November 2019

Maui Burning

NREM researcher warns that recent wildfires require proactive response

Maui Burning

Clay Trauernicht (NREM) wrote a chilling article on a hot topic in Civil Beat. The wildland fire researcher and Extension faculty member discussed Central Maui fires that burned nearly 20,000 acres this summer (see image of burned area from the Sentinel-2 satellite). 

This “unprecedented” area reflects “dramatic increases in wildfires across the state,” he warns. “Much of the 4,600 acres that just burned at Maalaea (the fourth-largest incident there since 2006) were once ranch lands and sugarcane. This historical context makes it difficult to place singular blame for fire incidents, and indicates that policies of ‘benign neglect’ applied to large swaths of our watersheds aren’t working.”

The Pacific Fire Exchange organized a field tour of the burned area so state and county leaders can talk about what to do next. This revealed “some positive takeaways. Cooperation among firefighters, equipment operators and landowners is excellent.” As well, fires in the Islands tend to be quickly extinguished, unlike the uncontrolled blazes in California. 

But there are problems with infrastructure: firefighters have limited access to many areas and to sufficient water. Climate change and the decline in agriculture, with its concomitant lack of irrigation and growth of non-native flammable grasses, are also to blame.

It’s important to focus on prevention and risk reduction, Clay emphasizes: “Torching abandoned cars is a key ignition source on Maui, so increasing awareness of the Junk Vehicle Assistance Program could have impact. For fuels, putting land back into agriculture, expanding livestock grazing, converting grasslands to less flammable vegetation, also conventional fuel breaks and prescribed burning, all reduce the potential for fires to ignite and grow.” It’s also crucial that enough funding be allocated to this growing problem.

“Making our communities and landscapes more resilient over the long-term on all fronts—social, economic, and environmental—will take creative partnerships, increased valuation of land stewardship, and vision for what our future landscapes could look like,” Clay concludes. “The real challenge seems to be not just communicating the value of what we stand to lose, but reminding ourselves we can choose a better way forward.”

Read the full article here.

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