The Fire Next Time - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

David Duffy

David Duffy is the Gerrit Parmele Wilder Professor of Botany at the University of Hawaii Manoa and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has worked on invasive species and ecosystem perturbations in Africa, South America, and Alaska and Hawaii in the United States for over 40 years.

Preventing another Lahaina will take a coordinated effort.

Hawaii is becoming drier as a series of droughts continue. At the same time, the departure of the plantations has left huge portions of the state in fallow grasslands.

Such grasslands can generate frequent wildland fires, and such fires prevent the growth of woodlands that shade out grass, so the fire cycle continues with more and more grass as tinder.

In 2018 we almost lost Lahaina to a wildland fire during Hurricane Lane. This year a wildland fire coinciding with another hurricane leveled the town. There will be prolonged and intense discussions on the recovery of Lahaina; however we should not wait to deal with the present and future danger to leeward communities caused by grass-fueled wildfires.

We can create fire breaks, defoliate grasses and harden housing, but the threat will remain. Perhaps this is the time to convert the abandoned grasslands into forests through a major effort across all the islands. This doesn’t mean we just go out and plant a bunch of trees that may not survive a year. We need a science-based approach, honed through management experience, that thinks in terms of decades. We have a lot of such expertise on reforestation here in the islands and on call from the mainland.

Reforestation might initially involve cattle or goats to keep the grass down while we outplant trees in protective enclosures. We could plant fast-growing tree species to shade out the grass.

While native tree species would be ideal, we might initially plant others that are short-lived and non-invasive and of course not vulnerable to wildfire. Some such tree species could be planted as plantations for harvest to help pay for the project. Overtime the ideal would be to regrow the islands’ original dry land forest, replacing the exotic grasslands. We would learn and adapt along the way as we find that conditions vary between the islands and the climate gets drier.

The Kula area, with its network of gulches and slopes, is home to many varieties of tree growth, including eucalyptus. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

While the benefits would be felt much sooner, this would be a long-term effort and would require consistent funding at a scale that reflects the challenge of our degraded landscapes. Inconsistency in effort would just end up growing more grass for more fires. This should not be an ad hoc effort by an existing agency, already overburdened with statutory tasks. Perhaps we need a nonprofit or an independent governmental agency to manage this. Such an entity must have agility to adapt, to work well with others, and to not be bogged down in bureaucracy

Regrowing the forest would reduce wildfire risk, but it would also benefit our watersheds by retaining more rainfall for our water supply and reducing sediment runoffs onto our reefs.

We might never again have the permanently flowing streams that once enriched the Kona Coast and made Maui the Venice of the Pacific, but we might have greener landscapes that reflect the environment in which kanaka maoli culture flourished and that we could all enjoy.

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About the Author

David Duffy

David Duffy is the Gerrit Parmele Wilder Professor of Botany at the University of Hawaii Manoa and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has worked on invasive species and ecosystem perturbations in Africa, South America, and Alaska and Hawaii in the United States for over 40 years.

Latest Comments (0)

Thank you Dr. Duffy!The need to reforest and renew native flora could be advanced with a system of small, solar-powered atmospheric water harvesters (or generators). Mention of these devices can be found onYouTube (homemade), commercial sales sites (Amazon, Alibaba), and in the science news outlets.It would be great if someone local began producing these devices with inexpensive materials, sized and designed supply water to newly planted forests and fauna. This could bypass the worries about water supply mentioned below by Harvey, below.I really hope someone with the appropriate background and contacts can look into it.

dualistview · 3 weeks ago

It is too bad that CB puts the "Community Voices & Ideas" way down at 2nd from the bottom. This story belongs at the top of the page, not the bottom. Prevention through restoration is the way to go, no more fallow fields filled with fuel please. Thank-you Professor Duffy!

Thrasybulus_of_Athens · 3 weeks ago

A problem is the solutions are out there, and are well-known. But ignorant Legislators donʻt fund these programs, land managers lack funds, so everyone throws up their hands and says No Can. Again, start with simple, low-hanging fruit. The ʻĀina is that which feeds and sustains us. Not rail in the sky, not stadiums, not any of that non-sense. Until we understand and act appropriately, we are indeed doomed.

Patutoru · 3 weeks ago

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