Hawai’i fire: books to understand how climate affects state

Hawai’i fire: books to understand how climate affects state

by Suswati Basu
Cars burnt out, and Maui in ashes due to Hawai'i fire. Books linked to climate change in area.
Cars burnt out, and Maui in ashes due to Hawai’i fire. Credit: State Farm.

Devastating fires have decimated parts of the Earth this summer, with some being fatal in places like Hawai’i. The island nation, known for its rich culture and terrain, was hit with wildfires, killing more than 100 people.

Maui suffered the deadliest wildfire in over a century in the US, which exposed Hawai’i’s climate change adaptation flaws and offers lessons for future protection. Neglected areas with flammable invasive grasses, inadequate wildfire-resistant building standards, and decommissioned dams left the state vulnerable. A number of books written highlight how a large fire in Hawai‘i could have happened.

Hawai'i is spelled with an okina between the Is, which is the spelling used by most local Hawaiian people.

A state senator Jarrett Keohokalole told the New York Times, “there are very serious questions about how we maintain resiliency and sustainability with the increasing prevalence of climate-related disasters,” adding that people are now looking for assurances regarding being prepared.

Mark Rupp, adaptation program director for the Georgetown Climate Center in Washington, felt that part of the problem is due to the sheer diversity of threats. Despite planning ahead for sea level changes, Rupp stated: “The challenge that Hawai’i and all states are facing is the ways in which climate change is upending the assumptions that underlie the best thought-out plans.”

The islands also lack fire-resistant construction codes, unlike 21 other states. Governor Josh Green paused building standards updates for housing concerns. 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.

Impact of dam removals on water storage and fire risks in Hawai’i

Hawai’i’s water storage capacity has decreased due to dam removals, exacerbating fire risks amid drought. With over 100 dams, Hawai’i constructed many initially to supply irrigation water for the sugar cane industry, which held sway on the island until the late 20th century. Following the industry’s decline due to global competition, several of these dams deteriorated.

During 2006, a dam ruptured in Kauai, resulting in seven fatalities and prompting the state to enhance regulations. Instead of complying with the new guidelines, certain private owners chose to demolish their dams. Subsequently, state records indicate that 21 dams have been breached or dismantled since that incident.

The Shock Doctrine author and prominent social activist Naomi Klein wrote in The Guardian that big corporations, golf courses and hotels had been taking water from locals for years. Now the fire has resulted in even more devastating water theft as communities have been fighting to get ownership of their water supplies. But the deadline to submit those permit applications to the water commission was on Monday 7th August. And the fire that devoured Lahaina was the very next day.

“This historical and modern plantation economy has taken a tremendous toll on water in particular, draining Indigenous ecologies of their natural moisture.”

Naomi Klein, Author of the shock doctrine

Invasive plants and land use challenges: fuelling wildfires

Invasive grasses and shrubs cover a quarter of the state, yet efforts to restore land with less flammable plants are limited due to staffing issues and zoning challenges. In the 1800s, European influence led to the deforestation of Hawai’i, with sandalwood shipped to China. Plantations took over abandoned land, growing sugar cane and pineapple. Cheaper imports ended plantations in the 20th century, leaving untended land overrun by invasive grasses and shrubs, fueling fires. Reducing wildfire risk requires replacing these with less flammable plants, yet at insufficient scale.

Oahu Invasive Species Committee talks about landslide risks due to invasive species

Former plantations prefer luxury development, hampering land usage for farming. Rezoning decisions, property tax changes, and utilising idle land for climate-displaced communities are suggested solutions to enhance resilience against climate-induced threats.

Books to understand Hawai’i fire:

With that in mind, here are a number of books to understand the current fire in Hawai‘i, through works looking specifically at wildfires as well as Hawaiʻiʻs own history.

Read: What are we doing about climate change? – with 1,001 Voices on Climate Change author Devi Lockwood
  • Sugar Water: Hawai’i’s Plantation Ditches by Carol Wilcox. For hundreds of years, Native Hawaiians, local residents, and farmers have protested, contested, and been disillusioned by Hawaiʻiʻs water rights. The historic water diversion ditches continue to control and divert Hawaiʻiʻs water sources today.
  • Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea La E Pono Ai? How Shall We Live in Harmony? by Lilikalā Kameʻelehiwa. With skilful narration, the author portrays the symbiotic bond between Native Hawaiians and their environment. Subsequently, she adeptly outlines how The Great Māhele led to the gradual loss of this connection, resulting in the marginalisation of numerous Native Hawaiians.
  • Ancestral Places: Understanding Kanaka Geographies by Katrina-Ann Kapā Oliveira. Oliveira meticulously describes Native Hawaiian connection to place using the Hawaiian language. Specifically, she explains the Hawaiian words for particular places, terrains, rains, and much more.
  • Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands by Gavin Daws. The author writes “History came to Hawai’i by way of the sea, and traces of the past are still visible in the water as well as on the land.” Daws looks thoroughly at the history of Hawai’i in this book.
  • Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawai‘i by Carol MacLennan. This study highlights the extensive negative impacts of sugar production on the Island environment, including pollution, ecosystem destruction, labour exploitation, and political manipulation. All for an unprofitable crop dependent on slavery and labour force control.

Why it’s important to address climate change

Understanding the significance of climate change in Hawai’i becomes imperative in light of the archipelago’s unparalleled susceptibility to its repercussions. The escalating sea levels pose a direct threat to the coastal expanse, engendering repercussions that ripple across local communities and intricate ecosystems. Furthermore, the increasing temperatures exacerbate existing drought conditions, casting a shadow on vital water resources and the agricultural tapestry of the region. Amid this, the escalating frequency and severity of storms instill a sense of vulnerability, jeopardising both infrastructure and human safety.

Within this intricate web of challenges, the necessity to address climate change becomes indisputable, interwoven with safeguarding Hawai’i’s rich cultural heritage, fragile environmental equilibrium, and economic prosperity. Moreover, as a responsible global citizen, Hawai’i’s endeavours toward climate action bear the promise of contributing to the broader tapestry of sustainable practices that resonate on a worldwide scale.

1,001 Voices on Climate Change author Devi Lockwood talks to the How To Be Books Podcast as Hawai’i experiences devastating fire

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This article contains affiliate links via Bookshop.org in which we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you, in order to support local bookshops. We have not been commissioned to review books and services.

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