Hawaii Fires Fueled by Invasive Alien Grasses on Abandoned Farmland

Hawaii fire grassland (Ty O'Neil / Associated Press)
Ty O'Neil / Associated Press

The devastating wildfires that have scorched Hawaii and destroyed much of the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui have been fueled by invasive alien grassland species that have grown on abandoned farms that used to cultivate pineapple and other crops.

The grasses, which grow faster after rainy winters, create fuel for fires and are the biggest factor in turning Hawaii from a place where wildfires are uncommon to one in which they are increasingly considered a familiar risk, much as in mainland California.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday:

The uptick, fire experts say, is largely driven by a major shift in land use on the islands, specifically the abandonment of tens of thousands of acres of pineapple and sugar cane fields that have opened the door to highly combustible nonnative grasses.

Unlike California and other mainland states in the West, Hawaii has not seen a lot of wildfire historically and its ecosystems evolved without it. Since the 1990s, though, the number of fires has been increasing alongside growth of invasive grasses, such as guinea grass, and shrubs on what were once sprawling plantations. The University of Hawaii’s Ecosystem Extension Program cites a more than threefold increase in burned acreage in recent decades, compared with the last century’s average.

“You pull agriculture off the land (and) it fills in with burnable fuels, and no one is doing anything about that,” [wildfire expert Clay] Trauernicht said.

The Chronicle adds that higher temperatures and cycles of drought and rain, which some associate with climate change, have also contributed to the problem.

As in California, however, where environmentalists and courts have thwarted efforts to manage forests by removing potential fuel for wildfires, poor management of vegetation on former farmland is a major factor in the recent emergence of devastating wildfires.

As of Friday morning, 55 people were reported killed, and 1,000 remained missing, in Hawaii’s worst natural disaster and the most devastating fire since the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise in California in 2018, killing at least 85 people.

The immediate cause of the fire is not known. The rapid spread of the blaze was assisted by wind gusts of 60-80 miles per hour, driven by Hurricane Dora, which hovered several hundred miles offshore and drove the wildfires on Maui westward into Lahaina.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the new biography, Rhoda: ‘Comrade Kadalie, You Are Out of Order’. He is also the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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