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Hawaii National Guard members walking on Front Street in historic Lahaina, Hawaii, on Thursday, searching for wildfire survivors. Photo: Kevin Fujii/Zuma Press

To begin with: I love Maui and Lahaina Town. I’ve been going there for more than 30 years and was just there on vacation in June, strolling Front Street, eating at Cheeseburger in Paradise, stopping at Fleetwood’s, resting in the shade of the massive banyan tree, visiting the Baldwin House — the oldest house on the island of Maui.

The idea that the shops and history of Lahaina Town have been destroyed in a massive wildfire is painful to realize. The death count is past 80 and still rising. Lahaina is called the cradle of Hawaiian culture. This is a place where Hawaiian culture and history are celebrated and practiced, where three and four indigenous generations of a family live together.

Officials are saying they have no idea how the fires started, that winds more than 60 miles per hour from a hurricane passing hundreds of miles to the south fanned the flames and a high to the north of the island piped in the trade winds from the east. But the flames began in non-native grass and brush on fallow agricultural land.

In what happened there, lies a warning for places like the rural mountain counties of Colorado seeing a rise in tourism, to understand the protective role played by native vegetation and agricultural lands.

One day during this recent visit, we visited Maui’s Sugar Mill Museum,  (formally known as the Alexander &
Baldwin Sugar Museum) which documents 200 years of the sugar industry in Maui. As the first missionaries and whalers arrived, so did those who saw profit in pineapple and sugar cane. The native vegetation was stripped off the land, and irrigated farmland planted with pineapple and sugar cane replaced it. Irrigated agricultural fields held the land safe, and kept fire danger low.

But in the 20th century, the plantation owners began to sell out, and field after field dried out. As developers saw opportunity in buying and holding the land, produce was replaced by highly flammable and non-native brush.

In the fall of 2019, the same year of the Decker Fire in Chaffee County, Maui County also had a fire wakeup call — scorching several thousand acres of land and destroying wind turbines on West Maui, south of Lahaina Town. We visited Maui in November 2019, just after our own fire crisis was winding down.

Even before that 2019 fire, there were warnings. From the August 12, 2023 Wall Street Journal:

“In 2014, a wildfire-protection plan for the area was written by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a nonprofit that works with government agencies. It warned that Lahaina was among Maui’s most fire-prone areas because of its proximity to parched grasslands, steep terrain and frequent winds.

The plan, which involved Maui and state officials, laid out a multitude of mitigation measures that needed to be undertaken to shield the area around Lahaina from fires. They included thinning vegetation near populated areas, improving wildfire-response capabilities, and working with landowners and utilities to help reduce fire risk on their property.”

Some of the recommendations actually happened. But others fell short; like money to ramp up emergency-response capacity, and the rugged terrain made logistics difficult. Always, competing priorities and lack of funding prevented progress.

We learned while at the Sugar Cane Museum that the week after we were in Maui, the last producing sugar cane field on the island was due to be burned off. This is the step taken before the cane is harvested from irrigated fields, to be turned into “pure cane sugar from Hawaii.”  There isn’t a single irrigated sugar cane-producing field left on the island.

Tourism has taken the place of major agricultural production across broad swaths of this island. In its place, developers or those who hope to attract developers are buying and holding fallow lands, which wildfire experts say are becoming more dangerous over time and more dangerous the closer to town they are.

No one, yet, is talking about restoring native vegetation to the land, recovering Maui’s historic irrigation systems, better mitigation around towns, installing better fire warning systems, or prioritizing wildfire response capabilities. I hope they will; for the good of their residents as well as we tourists there.

Here in Chaffee, we have tended to focus on the elements of our Common Ground funding. All good, but perhaps, we too, need to pay more attention to restoring native grasses and making sure we preserve our historic agriculture irrigation ditch rights.