Lahaina, What We Know

Lahaina Banyan Court Park this week, photo via US Civil Air Patrol.

They have not yet identified who struck the match. In the horrific fire that has burned the town of Lahaina, killed at least eighty, and destroyed buildings more than a century old, the cause of the blaze has not yet been identified. The New York Times has posted a picture of the destruction and provided lengthy coverage which includes the category: What We Know.

In the Paradise fire, the deadliest fire in California history, it was PG&E’s errant powerlines that sparked the 2018 conflagration that wiped out a town which had no warning. A man in Arizona was charged for starting a wildfire by burning toilet paper. A woman had left a campfire unattended. We like to find accountability, the “single neck to choke” as the business people say. It’s better if a single person or company can be found at fault. But, for Maui, we have to go upwind to understand cause and effect. We have to go back to find causes in stages, to the resorts, the developers, the bombing, the ditches, the plantations, and the money. We have to follow the money, if we want to follow the fire.

Google maps, orientation of Maui.

Intended Consequences: Climate, Drought, Tourism

The cause of the fire, according to the latest news being disseminated was Climate Change. A hurricane nearby was sending unusually high winds, and Maui had been suffering under an extended drought. “Brush fires” were the cause, though inspectors may still go back through the debris to find an origin zone. It is easy to chalk everything now up to Climate Change, that anonymous boogieman that is lurking under the bed. Where could he possibly have come from? Absent from the phrase is the modifier “Human-Caused,” since this is not the work of any boogieman.

What We Know is where Lahaina was just weeks ago. In a knock-down, drag-out water dispute between tourists, resorts, people who live there, indigenous, and corporate interests, and a government that doesn’t want to deal with the controversy or its own sordid past. Negotiations had deteriorated, which happens when there isn’t enough to go around any more.

Article in SFGate, July 25, 2023, Maui beach photo by Peter French, Getty

Just weeks ago, the media was running stories about the fight for water on the west coast. Maui, like much the rest of the world, has been reeling from years of extremes–in this case, extreme drought. The leeward coastline of Maui, where all the beaches are lined with resorts, wanted water for the tourists. But the coast is dry and pipes its water in from the center and the east part of the island, places where residents are asked to reserve.

Maui had taken a pause from tourism during the pandemic, when no one could go in or out, to breathe a little and hope the aquifers could top up. They had asked outsiders even to stop coming to Maui in 2021, knowing that the water was running out. Maui was an emergency even before the high winds and the anonymous boogieman caused the disaster of the day.

The Developers and the Ditches

But it wasn’t just a recent hurricane and years of drought and drainage from resorts the created the issue. The ditches across Hawaii have been dug for years. Way back when, the natives cultivated taro, breadfruit, and other crops, enough to sustain themselves. But the sugar plantation owners saw the land as pure opportunity. There was money to be made. What Carol Wilcox Knew was enough to write an entire book about all the capital projects to siphon water from part of the land to the other part, the part where the plantations went.

Climate change and the tourists are part of a long line of development that has slowly and mercilessly wrecked Hawaii. The developers had been fighting with the indigenous people for decades, hemming them into smaller and smaller zones, dividing the land up into “lots,” as if there were natural boundaries to be observed. In one scholar’s story of the fight over the “map” of Maui, she describes how a developer’s attorney in court flourished a bucket of dirt that had rocks in it. “Do you consider this good farmland?” he asked.

In this revealing moment, the attorney had reduced land to its most isolated molecular state, dirt held in suspension, isolated away from the histories, stories, material practices, and people of the place from which it was taken… The logic of subdivision eviscerates the land in order to characterize it as a “wasteland” devoid of any kind of meaning or significance.

From “Mapping Wonder in the M¯aui Mo‘olelo on the Mo‘o‘¯aina” by Candace Fujikane

In contrast to the way that “climate” might belong to one, the water and the dirt must be seen to belong to someone and to someone who would use it to best way, i.e. to Produce Something, be it sugar or happy tourists.

But even the harsh dry climate of these southwestern shores can be traced back further. Sure, Maui is getting amorphously hotter because the world is heating up. Yet just a century ago, the weather of that part of Maui was not even dry and sere.

Climate Change II: The Bombing

The small island to Maui’s southwest is Kaho’olawe. As recently as 1909, an indigenous Kanaka ‘Oiwi woman who came from Maui described how the forests on Kaho’olawe attracted clouds in the morning, clouds which would then–laden with moisture–pass over to rain on those leeward slopes of Maui. Maui was lush from the rain that came from its sister island.

US Bombing Kaho’olawe, photo from US Naval History and Heritage Command.

Ranchers went into Kaho’olawe at the turn of the century and cut down the forests, looking for an opportunity. Unfortunately, they couldn’t quite grow enough or forage enough cattle for it to be profitable. The U.S. Navy took over. They began using Kaho’olawe–an “unowned, unoccupied, unusable” [my words] for target practice. The U.S. had established a naval base on Oahu, put a fleet way out in the Pacific to help create an American presence far from the continental mainland. Ignore for the moment whether it might have provoked other Pacific seafaring nations; ignore whether the attack on Pearl Harbor had no warning.

After the fleet at Pearl Harbor was destroyed, the U.S. upped their naval exercises around Kaho’olawe. Throughout World War II, they bombed it, systematically and steadily. And when the Korean War began, they repeated the bombing; during the Vietnam War, Operation Sailor Hat created 260 foot craters. Jet fighters were still bombing the island up until 1990, at which point Bush Pere ordered it to stop. Congress decided to give the island back to the state, and let them clean it up.

What We Know is that Kaho’olawe was not the same, and neither was the weather on the lee side of Maui. Where the fires are.

What We Know About Sugar, Money, the American Civil War

Why Hawaii in the first place? Why not, of course? Ever since Captain Cook rowed ashore in 1779 with a crew full of guns to claim the land for Britannia, since the missionaries made their way out to the natives, flanked by those looking for plantations in the west to match the Caribbean plantations in the east, Hawaii has always appeared ripe for picking. If you’ve been to the Big Island, then you can see the spot where Cook made a fatal error, assuming that opening fire on a horde of angry indigenous people armed only with machetes would scare them into submission.

USS Boston “taking” Honolulu, 1920 Hawaii National Archives

The Americans, much closer, managed to press their troops on to the land in numbers sufficient to scare away the Brits and other countries. There was a Civil War impact. When South was blockaded, their sugar crop wasn’t available. The Union needed more sugar, so land owners began buying Hawaiian land for sugar cultivation from the “Hawaiian government.” Of course, the Hawaiian government at that point was a joint operation between indigenous Hawaiian royals and the troops that brought a lot more guns than Captain Cook. Sugar plantations were created on Maui, the first mills went up in Lahaina, and they started digging the ditches. Sugar needs a lot of water.

From TourMaui!.com, “historic” Lahaina sugar plantation founded during US Civil War

The sugar plantations have finally closed. There likely isn’t enough water left for them, and labor is cheaper in Brazil and Thailand. The resorts moved in and the tourists towns built up.

Lahaina is lost. Or swept clean by two hundred years of sucking it dry. It’s a concentrated pilot program for how climate change, aka human-caused weather alterations and large-scale water diversion, can devastate towns. It will likely be rebuilt, and likely without sufficient regard to the lack of water to sustain it. This won’t be the last time.

NY Times image, destroyed buildings in Lahaina August 2023.

The Island of Lanai is also across the channel from Lahaina. It was once “owned” by Castle and Cooke, the sugarmen, but it’s been sold to Larry Ellison, the Oracle tech-billionaire. He’s let the Four Seasons and the resorts fill the island with golf courses to replace the pineapples and sugar plantations that are gone. The land is once again subdivided into 18 holes, leased away. There’s been no fire on Lanai yet, but it may only be a matter of time. I suspect that they would be sure to run the sirens for the golfers and the guests at the Four Seasons, faster than they did for the folks of Lahaina, who had almost no warning. The intricate siren system, created after the last deadly fire, was never activated.

What We Know, of course, is that the real sirens have been going off for a hundred years, across the developer court cases and land meetings dominated by resort owners, next to the navy bombers and the sugar plantation construction equipment. Somehow, no one has heard them either.

13 Replies to “Lahaina, What We Know”

  1. Thank you for a comprehensive historical observation. When will man(humans) Cate about cause and effect? Especially longterm effects.

    In the words of the song, ‘🎶They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.’ 😕😕😕

  2. Thanks for the facts and the background on the Lahaina tragedy. While the politicians bicker with each other, our world is going up in flames. What will it take? This was the best summing up of the situation and the causes that I’ve seen. Wish there was a reblog button so I could direct readers back to your blog.

  3. I was on the edge of tears all day Thursday as Lahaina burned — not for the banyan tree, nor for the tourists, but for the local people who have lost everything and for the long history of the town! Thank you for providing this excellent history of the decisions, and lack thereof, that led to this unspeakable tragedy!

    1. I don’t know if I’m glad or sorry that this post hit such a nerve. We have to speak the truth to power, even if that power is us.

  4. WELL SAID~! And as Pogo said, “We have seen the ENEMY, and he is US”

    I am seeing the exact same thing happening here in the Texas Hill country where I live. In many places, the aquifer has been pumped dry. I have had to deepen my water well, which is only meant to be used to fight fires, while I use a rainwater collection which is plenty enough to take care of my personal needs. My place has been set on fire three times by idiots throwing their still-lit cigarettes out the car window.

    The beautiful flowing creek that used to flow through my place has stopped flowing, to just a trickle, for the first time in the over 30 years that I have lived here. It has been dammed up between me and its source to water the lawn grass just to be mowed, and the place across the road from me has even dug a very large lake, then dammed our creek to pump the creek water into the artificial lake to keep it filled so he has a place to fish.

    A tourist “attraction” renting out “cabins” that look like Yurts now adjoins my place bringing in weekenders, and the wine-tasting places, and “Craft Beer” places every few miles where those stupid people pay up to $8 for a glass of inferior beer, or bad fake wine, and just places that rent out cabins are all over the place.

    Not mentioned is one thing not much thought about, what used to be a beautiful dark night sky, where people could see the stars at night now has a dull glow from all of the strong lights on all these places, because people forgot what a night sky was supposed to look like. There are several nearby that actually have flood light lighting up their homes, I guess because they can’t stand the darkness~!

    We named our little ranch Los Perdidos when we bought the property because it was so isolated there were only at best one or two cars that passed by our place each day. Now they are bumper to bumper with large vans and busses filled with “Sippy Lou’s” making the tours of all those drinking places. On Saturday it is dangerous to be on our road due to the drunk drivers weaving their way home.

    I don’t begrudge tourists, but there has to be a limit to overload and money grabbers with their get-rich-quick tourist traps. The county government looks the other way while the overload of the land, and when you find out that zoning laws are not being followed, it is too late because the damage has been done.

    Water is being drained by too many wells beyond the ability of the aquifer to replenish the supply, None of these money grabbers even think of using native plants and grass while planting yards that must be watered to keep them green.

    I do not rest my case, because I just can’t~! I guess you were right Pogo, now if we could only realize that we are our own worse enemies~!

  5. Such a beautiful and sad story–thank you for sharing! Humans seem to create and destroy at one time. We were in Capitol Reef Nat’l Park last month, one of the few places in US where you can see the night sky. It may be that seeing the Milky Way will come to be like seeing a bald eagle or a condor, stunning and incredibly rare.

    I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading and writing about Asia in the Middle Ages, a relatively obscure subject. But it puts in perspective history, humans, the earth. Humans tragically destroy; and then they rebuild. Kaho’owale is being restored and maybe, in a century, after tourists abandon the desert shores of Maui, they will be restored, too. In the short run, though, I am sorry for the loss of your peace.

  6. I was cleaning my drawers today looking for something and I ran across a piece of some document that I had saved that talked about denial. WE ARE ALL IN DENIAL. We think government should fix this but none of us want our cars, our landscapes, our internet shopping to be curtailed.
    We just came from an aborted motorhome trip and I know the gas and exhaust was damaging to the earth… but it’s a motorhome and it’s our retirement! (Irony is we were heading to Glacier NP to see ANY glacier before they disappear! Talk about denial!!!)

    When it comes to landscapes there is a movement here in the Sacto area where people are ripping out their lawns and putting in heat capturing rock and cacti which will push their AC bills higher because rock absorbs heat and will radiate it all night. Yes it saves water but it raises the temp around your house and others and will eventually cook the trees in the yard as well.

    Then there is the internet shopping issue. Yes there are fewer cars on the road but in my opinion 80% of the packaging is non recyclable and is filling up our landfills with plastic that will never degrade. Not to mention the server farms strategically placed around the country that suck up gigawatts of power to keep us all happy on our little computers.

    And finally I have to stand on my ” overpopulation soapbox”. There are too many people. Too many tourists, too many to house, too many to feed. Thanks for letting me rant. I’m going back to my denial cave and read something light and fluffy. j

    1. Polly, I really appreciate your comment! I agree with most of it. I think over population (including of US, not just “other countries”) is a huge driver in so many problems! We need to start self-limiting, although the pandemic kind of taught us that we’re really sh**y at that. Still, we should. 2nd. I don’t know that you’ll see lots of Glaciers at GNP; lots of snow in the winter, but when I was there in the fall it was just beautiful sans obvious glaciers. Be warned. 3rd. I step back from too much purity with other people’s positive efforts. As someone with rock gardens, I see your point esp. if everyone has nothing but rock, but folks keeping their water-guzzling lawns isn’t the solution, and many of the other options are problematic also. I’m not going to knock someone for buying a hybrid instead of a car that only uses cooking oil. baby steps! (my neighbors pretty much all put in astro-turf, which has its own issues). Still, rant on! We need to continually praise the baby steps and continue to correct and educate, as much as we can.

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