Some unrealistic thinking is creeping into the public perception of last month’s devastating Maui, Hawaii, fire. It arises in part from news reports on the lawsuit by Maui County against state utility Hawaiian Electric Co., accusing it of failing to de-energize powerlines as high winds hit the island. That decision is only a small part of the reality confronting state and local governments and code writers in Hawaii who knew exactly what to do to prevent such tragedies but were unable to win support or galvanize the collective will in time to take protective steps.
Much of the western U.S. faces elevated wildfire risk, so the question should be whether this part of the country will forestall recurrence of similar disasters it has already faced. Along with more people that could again be in peril, road and power infrastructure is also at risk, notes Mojtaba Sadeh, associate professor of civil engineering at Boise State University.
Another distraction in Maui has been the county’s failure to use Hawaii’s outdoor siren public safety warning system, the largest of its kind in the world. Warnings are important if everything else goes wrong, but the issues go deeper. Powerful dry winds, and drought conditions linked to climate change, have created new realities. Building codes, usually only applied to new construction and retrofits, may need to be written and rewritten to require all structures to have fire-resistant roofs and other known measures for more wilderness interface protection.
As of 2021, Maui County enforced the 2012 International Building Code and 2012 International Residential Code, blending these with amendments in prior local code versions. The hard-hit city of Lahaina’s historic center, consisting of older wood-frame buildings among other structures, predated new codes. Questions now are whether more code amendments are needed and if rebuilding should start before the usual slow-moving approval process runs its course.
Another issue with no easy solution relates to power shutdowns, something that utilities across the U.S. also are struggling with as climates change. They are caught between the public safety risks of turning off power and new investment in programs that involve huge amounts of tree trimming.
Hawaii also must confront the paramount threat from invasive grasses, which cover about 25% of its total land area and are highly flammable once dry. Grasses fill in gaps and take root in roadsides and spaces between homes, a state official told the magazine Wired.
With the state government notoriously underfunded, the idea of eradicating or even properly managing grasses seems a distant hope. Compelling property owners to clear them will likely face taxpayer backlash but may be necessary to protect local communities as a whole, as governments seek ways to hold up their end of the grass eradication challenge.
Maui County’s own fire department gave fire prevention “short shrift,” according to a 2021 report it issued on the threat of wildfires. If we are to prevent more Lahaina-type disasters, the effort must go way beyond the immediate issues of what triggered such blazes.
Deputy Editor Richard Korman helps run ENR’s business and legal news and investigations, selects ENR’s commentary and oversees editorial content on ENR.com. In 2023 the American Society of Business Publication Editors awarded Richard the Stephen Barr Award, the highest honor for a single feature story or investigation, for his story on the aftermath of a terrible auto crash in Kentucky in 2019, and in 2015 the American Business Media awarded him the Timothy White Award for investigations of surety fraud and workplace bullying. A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Richard has been a fellow on drone safety with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Richard’s freelance writing has appeared in the Seattle Times, the New York Times, Business Week and the websites of The Atlantic and Salon.com. He admires construction projects that finish on time and budget, compensate all team members fairly and record zero fatalities or serious injuries.
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