Healing Lāhainā with Indigenous Knowledge

Michael Odegaard
August 30, 2023

Our era of social media has endowed us with a mixed blessing when it comes to the public response to the Lāhainā Wildfire and Holocaust that has devastated thousands of Maui families and businesses and already claimed 111 lives as of the time of publishing with only 25% of FEMA search and rescue completed (which figure is predicted to triple due to an estimated 1,300 persons missing), and within hours a whole village of 2,207 buildings was reduced to ashes that included several of both local and national interest, including an historical district that was the first capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the world’s largest banyan tree, and the first high school built west of the Mississippi River. The global public outpouring of sympathy and compassion has been impressive. I was first notified of the disaster within a day of its genesis in the early morning by a text originating halfway around the world from a seminary classmate living in Greece, and thirteen shipping containers of humanitarian provisions have already left the Port of Long Beach for Maui!

The Lāhainā Wildfire disaster and response has become a national public media event that invites a range of reactions reflecting the interests and fears of the many millions of its spectators regarding its human causes. The primary disaster has also set off a chain reaction of secondary problems caused by the projection of individual commentators’ own unresolved personal issues that interfere with the disaster victims’ healing. After attending to the most urgent needs to locate all survivors and casualties as well as connect victims with appropriate humanitarian assistance, at some point in the process of hoʻoponopono (Hawaiian for “making things right”) Lāhainā folks will begin to assess the range of preventable causes for this epic tragedy as well as to stifle the efforts of opportunists to inflict further trauma upon those who have already been dislocated by the wildfire.

A deep sense of loss and scandal felt by all affected is rooted in the failure of the local and regional safety professionals to accurately assess and manage the preexisting risks to public safety and promote reasonable measures to protect their citizens from such a preventable disaster. None of the island’s over 80 civil defense sirens were activated to alert residents of the impending doom, and the incapacity of the local road systems to evacuate residents caused many to abandon their cars and escape injury from the wildfire by jumping into the adjacent ocean.

Some of more obvious and controversial contributing human-caused risks include the predicted hotter and drier weather from global climate change, the long and short term effects of historically redirected mountain streams that caused the invasion of non-native vegetation landscapes, the failures of Hawaiʻi safety agencies to accurately assess and prevent the resulting brushfire disaster risks, the failure of civil defense warning systems for residents, and opportunism from both local and non-local investors that can cause those who have been dislocated to never return. Little public attention to known wildfire prevention and abatement techniques rooted in indigenous knowledge systems has been offered so far.

Communities located in areas at high risk for brushfire are typically required by authorities to be buffered from high brushfire risk landscapes with what fire prevention professionals call “fuel modification zones.” These zones are designed to employ a combination of strategic removal of hazardous plant species along with some form of irrigated lands strategically located in the immediate vicinity of human settlements to stop the movement of fire and its sparks into built environments. Visionary land developers in Maui over the last few decades have proposed, but largely been unable to implement, the restoration natural streams and indigenous land use planning and farming techniques to ensure that water from these streams (or imported from other areas) can used for community farming. The preservation and restoration of agricultural lands represents the most productive fuel modification zones that can protect urban development from wildfire risks. As the visionary Maui voters last October elected to make their government bilingual in both English and the indigenous Hawaiian language, we are hopeful that indigenous knowledge will have a better chance to be utilized in this historic land’s healing.