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Fire Exposes Flaws in Hawaii’s Defenses Against Climate Shocks

The devastation from the wildfire in Maui, the deadliest in the United States in more than a century, reveals the flaws in Hawaii’s efforts to adapt to climate change — and points to ways the state can better protect residents from future fires.

That list of shortcomings includes leaving huge areas of land covered in highly flammable invasive grasses; failing to adopt wildfire-resistant building standards; and shutting down dams, reducing the island’s ability to store water.

“There are very serious questions about how we maintain resiliency and sustainability with the increasing prevalence of climate-related disasters,” said Jarrett Keohokalole, a state senator. “People are going to, probably rightly, say we should have been better prepared.”

Some of the shortcomings identified by safety advocates reflect challenges around the country as the planet continues to warm and the threat from wildfires grows. But others are specific to Hawaii.

Part of the problem is the sheer diversity of threats. “Hawaii is a leader among states in its approach to adaptation planning, particularly as it relates to sea level rise, extreme storms and infrastructure,” said Mark Rupp, adaptation program director for the Georgetown Climate Center in Washington. “The challenge that Hawaii and all states are facing is the ways in which climate change is upending the assumptions that underlie the best thought-out plans.”

The state lacks building standards that would better protect structures against wildfires, for example, by requiring the use of fire-resistant materials and construction techniques, or by maintaining space around structures that are clear of flammable vegetation.

That puts Hawaii out of step with much of the country: 21 states, including California and most other Western states, have adopted those standards, according to the International Code Council, the Washington-based nonprofit group that compiles them.

Last month, Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii issued an order that stops the state from adopting new or updated building standards. The governor said the move was necessary to address a severe housing shortage.

Attempts to block tougher building codes in the name of affordability are common nationwide, even if it sacrifices safety, said Michele Steinberg, wildfire division director for the National Fire Protection Association.

A spokeswoman for the state, Claudia Rapkoch, said in an email that the order is only expected to be in place for up to one year, and that counties have the authority to adopt their own building codes.

“Historically, widespread damage from natural disasters in Hawaii was not caused by fires,” Ms. Rapkoch said. “Hawaii is generally at higher risk of hurricanes and tsunamis than wildfires.”

Stronger building standards might not have made a significant difference in Lahaina, where many structures were historic, according to Karl Fippinger, vice president for fire and disaster mitigation at the code council. But they could better protect the structures that get built in their place, as well as new construction around the state.

“Every state should be using appropriate wildfire-related standards for new construction and rebuilds,” Ms. Steinberg said. “We see this as a really big problem.”

The state should also consider structural changes with wildfire risk in mind, experts said.

For example, Lahaina, the town destroyed by the fire, had only one major road in and out, not unlike many small communities around the United States. Where that’s the case, officials should build fire-resistant shelters that can house large number of people, Ms. Steinberg said.

State Senator Angus McKelvey, who represents Lahaina, offered a list of other changes he hopes to see in the aftermath of the fire, including building better firebreaks along the highway leading into town; an investigation of why the early warning system failed; and giving firefighters better training and equipment.

Another useful change would be expanding the number of homes with solar panels and batteries, said Josh Stanbro, the former chief resilience officer for Honolulu.

Initial reports suggest that sparks from power lines operated by the state’s power provider, Hawaiian Electric, may have started the fire. That has prompted criticism that the power company should have cut off power to those lines as the fire risk grew. The company is now facing lawsuits.

But the company may have been reluctant to incur complaints from customers angry about losing power, Mr. Stanbro said. If more homes had the ability to generate their own electricity, even for short periods, the company might be more willing to cut off the power next time.

“That takes away the element of, ‘I desperately need the grid,’” Mr. Stanbro said. “So that when there’s high-fire risk, the utility can responsibly shut off.”

Hawaiian Electric did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ms. Rapkoch, the spokeswoman for the state, called Hawaii “a national leader in rooftop solar and home battery deployment.”

Hawaii has been experiencing drought for several years, making the state vulnerable to fire. But the state has also been losing its ability to store water, exacerbating the problem.

Hawaii has more than 100 dams, many built to provide irrigation water for the sugar cane industry that dominated the island until the end of the 20th century. After the industry collapsed in the face of international competition, some of those dams fell into disrepair.

In 2006, a dam burst on Kauai, killing seven people and leading the state to tighten standards. But rather than meet new standards, some private owners simply destroyed their dams. Since then, 21 dams have been breached or removed, according to state records.

That has significantly reduced the state’s capacity to store increasingly scarce rainfall, water that could be used to irrigate land and make it more resistant to fire, according to Jonathan Scheuer, an expert in Hawaii water policy.

“At the very moment at which we need more storage, there’s less storage available,” Mr. Scheuer said.

Still, the most pressing challenge, experts say, is the accumulation of invasive, highly flammable grasses across the state, a widely recognized problem but one that the state and private landowners have largely failed to address.

In the 1800s, Europeans oversaw the cutting down of much of Hawaii’s forests, especially its sandalwood, which was shipped to China, according to Charles Fletcher, interim dean at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. That newly stripped land was then taken over by plantations, mainly growing sugar cane and pineapple.

As cheaper overseas imports put Hawaiian plantations out of business in the end of the 20th century, that land sat untended. Nonnative plants, such as guinea grass and fountain grass, quickly took over. Almost one-quarter of Hawaii’s surface area is now covered in invasive grasses and shrubs, fuel for fires, according to federal data.

Perhaps the best way to reduce Hawaii’s wildfire risk is to cover that land with less flammable plants, either by farming it again, or by planting native trees. Neither of those things is happening at the scale required.

State agencies, which own more than one-third of Hawaii’s land, have been slow to lease that land to farmers or reforest it, experts said. The land around Lahaina is state-owned, according to Joel LaPinta, a real estate broker who works in the area.

Part of the problem is that those agencies don’t have the resources they need, according to Senator Keohokalole. “We’ve had terrible staffing issues, especially in wildlife and conservation management,” he said.

Ms. Rapkoch, the state spokeswoman, did not directly discuss why state land has remained untended. “Wildfire risks awareness and reduction projects are implemented in Hawaii,” she said, including projects funded by U.S. Forest Service grants.

At the same time, owners of the former plantations have little financial incentive to touch the land, which is zoned primarily for agriculture. As Hawaii’s economy has become dominated by tourism, the most lucrative use of that land is to build luxury homes or hotels, according to Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau.

“What’s the most profitable thing to grow on agricultural land? Homes,” Mr. Miyamoto said.

Many landowners have been trying to get their land rezoned for development, a glacially slow process. In the meantime, they are reluctant to lease the land to farmers, according to Mr. Scheuer, the water policy expert.

One solution would be to speed up decisions about which land can be developed, according to Keli’i Akina, president and chief executive officer of the Grassroot Initiative of Hawaii, a nonprofit policy research group that advocates for limited government. Mr. Stanbro suggested raising property taxes for untended land, to change the financial incentives that landowners face.

Dr. Fletcher, of the University of Hawaii, offered a different plan: Use some of that idle land to build new towns for residents of Hawaii displaced by climate change, starting with Lahaina survivors.

“Use the lands uphill from Lahaina to rebuild,” Dr. Fletcher said. “A hyper-resilient, decarbonized, sustainable community of the future.”

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