Last month, Hawaii experienced devastating wildfires that ravaged the islands of Maui, Oahu, and Hawaii. The fires killed 115 people, destroyed 2,170 acres, and were described by Hawaii’s governor as the “largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history.” The fires showcase the impacts of anthropogenic climate change as Hawaii experiences 90% less rainfall than a century ago and was in a state of drought across much of the islands. These dry conditions combined with the spread of invasive dry grasses and high winds from nearby Hurricane Dora fuelled the fires.
Many on the islands are pointing to the additional role colonisation played in exacerbating the fires, and the negative impacts felt in this event give further traction in the push for Hawaiian sovereignty. In the late 19th and early 20th century, United States business interests filled the islands with plantations as Hawaii was annexed to become a U.S. state. Now, many of these far-reaching farms have been shut down and overtaken by invasive non-native plants that Hawaiian residents fear could contribute to more fires in the future.
Beyond this, the U.S. has used the beauty of the Hawaiian islands as an unsustainable domestic tourist destination, causing costs to soar for native Hawaiians. Because of this, only 10% of the current Hawaiian population is composed of native Hawaiians. The fires have worsened this upheaval, with residents claiming real estate interests by placing calls to put their foot in the door to buy up damaged land and property. Communities worry about how this could further change and destroy the islands.
Finally, many have criticized the federal government’s reaction to the fires. Hawaiian residents have only been compensated $700 thus far for the damage that was inflicted on their homes and livelihoods. Further, U.S.President Joe Biden’s response has received criticism by delaying his visit to the islands as well as distracting from emergency response efforts. To top it all off, there is fear of a U.S. government shutdown as Congress debates funding for the upcoming fiscal year. Without consensus, necessary relief funds to Hawaii will be delayed. Without the benefit of U.S. resources and assistance, Hawaii remains just as isolated as if it were its own sovereign nation.
The second part of the reaction to these fires comes in the form of lawsuits that corporations and government agencies are directing at each other to avoid blame for the catastrophe. The first comes from Maui County against Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) for “inexcusably [keeping] their power lines energized” after receiving alerts from the National Weather Service that there would be high winds and fire conditions. HECO has responded that there were emergency response steps that would have been impacted had power been cut off including water access. Maui County is looking for damages from HECO in the tens to hundreds of millions of USD for the fires that will likely cost up to 6 billion USD in build back costs.
Another aspect of the Maui County v. HECO lawsuit pertains to faulty equipment management. In 2022, HECO was required to make updates to their power system which included introducing new poles and removing overgrown vegetation. Fires like these often start from fallen power lines that emit a spark, catching nearby brush on fire, and spreading in the high winds of Hurricane Dora, these mistakes could likely have been the start of the fires that killed over a hundred people and destroyed all of Lahaina. Following the fires, HECO was issued a restraining order by families who watched the organization remove equipment near the fire start site.
The next lawsuit is against Maui County itself. The county failed to sound emergency sirens to warn residents of the disaster, which many frustrated residents felt was dangerous and short-sighted. Facing backlash, the Chief of Maui Emergency Management resigned. In the lawsuit against Maui County, Harold Wells - the plaintiff – argues that his daughter, who died in the fires, could have been saved with the warning. Maui County’s stance has been that the sirens would have caused confusion because they are also used during tsunamis; they feared residents would misinterpret the signal and go towards higher ground where the fire raged.
Although the federal government and even the local government have had poor reactions to the disaster, the Lahaina community and others hurt by the fire have come together to support each other. Many residents have voiced their frustration that they feel this tragedy is a trending topic that will slowly lose its initial impact until it is forgotten, particularly as other devastating stories fill news feeds. The U.S. government has a history of providing poor disaster responses to communities of color, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and even during COVID-19. Many Hawaiians fear for a repeat of this same response to their islands following the wildfires. The rebuilding process is predicted to take several years, and the community will be hurting long after a sense of normalcy is established once again. As agencies and non-government groups shift blame, they take insignificant action. A month out, so much still needs to be done for the people of Hawaii to heal from this disaster.