Residents are also trying to safeguard Upcountry homes from the increased chance of dangerous mudslides.

With showers forecast over parts of Hawaii early next week, officials and environmentalists are scrambling to protect nearshore waters off Lahaina from becoming polluted with fire-related runoff.

The remnants of post-Tropical Storm Fernanda are expected to bring moist air and possible showers to windward and mountainous portions of Hawaii, including Maui, according to the National Weather Service.

“We’re watching it closely,” said meteorologist Kevin Kodama. “It’s going to be a pretty big change early next week, particularly Monday night.”

The ruins of Lahania town eerily rests calmly as a large wave breaks over Lahaina Harbor breakwall Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. Two days prior, a large, fast-moving wildfire consumed this historical West Maui town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
There’s growing concern over the potential for rain to wash pollutants from the Lahaina fire into the ocean. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Most rainfall should pass south of the Big Island, but showers could lash windward and mauka areas of Hawaii island and Maui, he said.

Efforts are underway to protect the ocean and marine life off Lahaina, as well as homes in Upcountry that are at increased risk of mudslides after fires in Kula.

As part of the ongoing recovery process, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to deploy a glue-like substance designed to keep ash in place for several months, according to EPA incident commander Steve Calanog.

“We will apply a soil tackifier which will basically bind up the ash and mitigate migration of the ash from the wind,” Calanog said.

It was uncertain when exactly that effort would begin, however.

A Maui County firefighter conducts search, rescue and recovery operations in areas damaged by wildfires in Lahaina. (Hawaii National Guard/2023)

Maui County is also working with the U.S. Coast Guard and other partners to deploy pollution control measures, including silt fences and hay bales around storm drains.

They’re meant to reduce the amount of pollution entering the ocean from stormwater runoff, said Darryl Lum, chief of the state Department of Health’s clean water branch, in an email.

If rain mixes with ash from the fire, it’ll turn into a toxic soup, said John Starmer, chief scientist with Maui Nui Marine Resource Council. If the pollution reaches the ocean, it could have long-term impacts on fish, coral reefs and other marine life.

Guaranteed we have heavy metals, we’ve got residues, PCBs and whatever else from, you know, burning plastics, asbestos and all this other sort of stuff,” Starmer said. “Some of this stuff is likely to be persistent on the reef. There is a good chance that it will get up into the food chain.”

John Starmer is chief scientist with Maui Nui Marine Resource Council. (Courtesy: Maui Nui Marine Resource Council)

On a hopeful note, there’s a growing ad hoc group of about 50 state, university and federal experts from across the country that are coordinating with Hawaii counterparts on how best to keep fire-related pollution out of the water, said Starmer.

But it’s not just the rain washing pollutants into the ocean off Lahaina that people are concerned about. Heavy rainfall after a wildfire can elevate risks of flash floods, debris flows, landslides and rockfalls, according to fire experts.

In Upcountry Maui, some residents of fire-scorched Upper Kula are bracing for the possibility of mudslides. And residents of coastal Kihei have faced terrible flooding in recent years.

While it’s unclear whether Maui will see measurable rain this coming week, residents feel it’s only a matter of time.

“We’re praying for gentle rain and not a big dump,” said Kourtney Knox, a chiropractor whose fire-damaged home is perched on a gulch in Upper Kula where a wildlife destroyed 19 structures last week.

Knox’s home was partially charred. The soils surrounding it and in the gulch are burnt and unstable, she said.  

As she bunks with friends in Kihei while awaiting home repairs, Knox worries about the incoming weather. Mudslides and flash flooding could take out what’s left of her house.

Maui wildfires
Wildfire destroyed a historic redwood home at Kula Sandalwoods Cafe and Inn last week in Upcountry. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Some longtime community members have advised Knox to be proactive. They told her to activate sprinklers to dampen and compact the soil, and to plant vetiver, a species of grass used in essential oils for its calming properties but that also serves to stabilize dirt.

Vetiver takes time to grow so it’s not an immediate solution, Knox said.

Knox has her sprinkler going. But she’s frustrated by what she considers a lack of help or guidance from state or county officials since the fire first broke out.

“The Red Cross showed up yesterday and offered me a bucket,” Knox said.

Mandy McMahon, public affairs manager for the American Red Cross, said she was on the ground in Kula on Thursday, assessing needs and handing out clean-up kits that contain a variety of supplies. McMahon said she reported back to headquarters that several Upper Kula residents are in need of help.

The Department of Health declined a request for an interview, and sent a statement through a public relations firm. The department advised the public to steer clear of floodwaters and stormwater runoff at all times due to the possible overflow of cesspools, sewers, presence of pesticides, animal fecal matter, pathogens, toxic chemicals and associated burned debris.

The department also urged the public to avoid the water if it is brown or has a foul odor, and recommended avoiding any activities in wet soil, freshwater and marine water if you have any cuts or open wounds.

DOH said in the statement that people should always wear gloves, shoes and protective gear to minimize exposures to viruses, pathogens, bacteria and harmful chemicals.

Civil Beat reporter Allan Kew contributed to this story. 

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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