GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 724, 17 August 2023

Hawaii: The wildfires
Dhriti Mukherjee

In the news
On 8 August, land and atmospheric conditions created "fire weather," leading to a bushfire developing into wildfires that spread across the Hawaiian island of Maui. The blaze has affected the city of Lahaina, claiming 100 lives and forcibly displacing thousands over nine days. Although investigations are underway as the cause is yet to be ascertained, more casualties are to be expected. 

Hawaii Governor Josh Green stated: "It is a product, in my estimation, of certainly global warming combined with drought, combined with a super storm, where we had a hurricane offshore several hundred miles, still generating large winds." However, the blame is not solely on climatic conditions. 

In response to the unfolding crisis, local officials have taken measures to manage the situation and provide support. However, evacuation plans have in recent days received heavy criticism for failure to issue warnings on time, sending out statements that generated a false sense of safety and hope, not having adequate quantities of water, and being inefficient in the rescue and identification of victims.

President Joe Biden commented on the issue: "Not only our prayers are with those impacted – but every asset we have will be available to them." Additionally, he approved a complete federal reimbursement for any emergency expenditure that would be incurred. Although the federal government has promised USD 2.3 million in aid to families, the fires continue to burn and the island braces itself for more inevitable losses.

Issues at large
First, lack of government preparedness. None of the established emergency systems were implemented efficiently, leading to Hawaii's attorney general announcing an investigation. As per an official report released by Hawaii in 2022, the danger of wildfires was ranked as "low," which has been used to justify the state's ill-preparedness and "inadequate resources." The country's fire department plan included "nothing about what can and should be done to prevent fires." However, reports over the last five years have predicted an increase in similar hurricane winds, meaning that officials were aware of the potential threat. Emergency officials also confirmed that none of the 80 sirens went off. 

Second, the environmental impact of tourist activities. Hawaii has been a popular tourist destination for decades. The fires, however, unmasked the darker side of over-tourism that the island has been grappling with for a while now. Historically, Hawaii is not an island that is prone to severe wildfires due to its humid weather and lush natural environment. However, the increase in tourists led to wetlands being paved to construct hotels and vacation homes to meet the demand. Scientists have also come forth with claims that non-residents with vacation homes who are ignorant of the native flora and fauna are responsible for planting dry savanna grasslands that increase the possibility of wildfires. 

Third, community displacement and societal fragility. The aftermath of the wildfires has exposed the vulnerabilities of communities and the potential for displacement during natural disasters. The town of Lahaina, once the royal capital of Hawaii, is a rich source of history and a "heritage museum." Several sites of cultural and ancestral significance have burned down; there is a deep sense of community loss. 

Fourth, state of emergency response. The handling of wildfires has underlined the inefficiency of emergency response systems. It has brought Hawaiian Electric, the largest electricity supplier in the US state of Hawaii, into negative limelight. 95 per cent of the state's residents are customers of this company, which failed to deploy a public power shut-off plan. The emergency siren systems also failed to go off. Hawaiian Electric now faces a lawsuit by Lahaina residents for its inaction and failure to shut off power lines once the wildfires began. Residents stated that the company "chose not to de-energize their power lines during the High Wind Watch and Red Flag Warning conditions for Maui before the Lahaina Fire started."

In perspective
First, sustainable tourism versus economic ramifications. The confluence of Hawaiian wildfires and the tourism industry's impact exposes the intricate dance between economic vitality and human empathy. Regulation extends beyond potentially limiting the number of tourists visiting Hawaii, including regulating actions taken by hotels and resorts to meet the demand. However, there is another side to the argument: tourism is the island's "economic engine" and could bring in the revenue needed to minimize losses. Thus, it is a tricky equation between ensuring sufficient resources for locals and securing long-term financial health. 

Second, adaptive ecosystem management. The destruction of the environment, which grew as per the island's geological conditions, has led to suggestions by experts to restore native vegetation. This can help create a natural barrier against other wildfires. Exploring the indigenous practice of implementing controlled burns to reduce flammable vegetation is also a solution.

Third, a blueprint for future crises. Despite knowing the importance of a power shut-off plan and studying Californian wildfire mitigation plans, Hawaiian Electric presented an inefficient front. This showcases the need for companies to have practice drills and locals to be informed of how to respond in these situations. The construction of adaptable infrastructure that facilitates evacuation, and emergency shelters, can enhance the quality of responsiveness. 

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