Hawaii’s Green Agenda—and Questionable Decisions—Primed the State for One of the Deadliest Wildfires in History
by Nick Pope, Daily Caller News Foundation, August 18, 2023
While climate hawks were quick to blame the tragic Hawaiian fires on climate change, some of the state’s green policies and questionable decision-making before and during the tragedy helped set the stage for a disaster that has so far claimed over 100 lives.
Along with other Democrats and some members of the media, Democratic Gov. Josh Green repeatedly suggested in the wake of the disaster that climate change and its effects were the primary cause, with Green himself stating explicitly that climate change is “the ultimate reason that so many people perished.”
However, a growing list of actions and green policy decisions made by elected and unelected officials of key Hawaiian institutions, public and private, in the years leading up to the fires appear to have played a major role.
For years before the fires, government agencies understood that Western Maui, the hardest-hit area, was particularly susceptible to wildfires because of high concentrations of non-native grasses in the area, according to The New York Times. An assessment report from 2020 stated that the region had a 90% chance of wildfires each year on average, a percentage calculated with the pervasive non-native dry grasses in mind.
Despite its understanding that the abundance of dry grass in the region posed a threat, the state allowed it to grow without doing much to trim it or otherwise keep it under control, according to NBC News. As a result, huge swaths of the region became open-air tinderboxes, particularly in West Maui.
For example, the state appears to have dragged its feet in negotiations with Hawaiian Electric, the state’s utility company whose downed power lines reportedly started the blaze.
Hawaiian Electric had identified an urgent need as early as 2019 to make infrastructure upgrades and manage vegetation to reduce the possibility that its equipment could spark a fire, and it proposed to spend $190 million to do so last June, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In response to the proposal, state bureaucrats and regulators bogged the proposal down in red tape and reviews, according to the Journal. The utility said that it would not begin the work until it had negotiated a deal with the state to recover the costs from ratepayers, an arrangement that is typical for utility companies seeking to make major investments of this variety, according to the Journal.
Hawaiian Electric is not completely absolved of responsibility, Dan Kish, senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
“It’s sad to see all the government and utility officials passing the buck rather than stepping up and admitting that mistakes were made,” Kish told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
“Hawaii’s obsession with climate took the utility’s eyes off the ball,” Kish continued. “Rather than concentrating on what they can fix, they focused on the climate industrial complex and its unworkable solutions.”
Hawaiian Electric interpreted the signals sent by the state’s commitment to reach 100% green electricity generation by 2045, deciding to expend significant resources to achieve this aim, according to the Journal.
The firm invested vast resources in green technologies, but ultimately spent less than $245,000 on wildfire-specific projects on the island between 2019 and 2022, after it had determined that it had to do more to mitigate the risks posed by errant sparks, according to the Journal.
“While there was concern for wildfire risk, politically the focus was on electricity generation,” Mina Morita, chair of the state utilities commission from 2011 to 2015, told the Journal.
A 2020 audit of the company’s management systems found that its risk considerations were mostly focused on financial risks, with minimal analysis of operational risks, while the division within the firm that oversaw power line operations had significant management problems, according to the Journal.
Hawaiian Electric did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
The fires began in earnest the morning of Aug. 8, as a downed power line reportedly sparked some dry grass and started the fire that would grow into one of the deadliest wildfires in American history.
West Maui Land Co. made a request at 1 p.m. to the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, asking the agency for permission to divert stream water to its reservoirs so that firefighters on the front lines could have access to more water to battle the resurgent flames, according to a letter it wrote to the department on Aug. 10.
In response to that request, the department’s Commission on Water Resource Management, which is led by an advocate of “indigenous knowledge” who has said that water management requires “true conversations about equity,” told the company to contact a downstream farmer to ensure that a temporary diversion would not impact his taro farming operation in undesirable ways, according to the letter. The company tried to make contact with the farmer, but communications were spotty and time was of the essence, the letter asserts.
The agency eventually granted approval to the company for the diversion at 6 p.m., some five hours after the request had been made, according to the letter. By that point, the fires were raging out of control, shutting down a key roadway and making it impossible for the company to access the siphon that would have allowed it to divert the water into the right places for the firefighters to access, the letter states.
Lahaina’s fire hydrants went dry, and the firefighters on the front lines had no choice but flee as their town went up in smoke, according to Hawaii News Now.
The alleged hesitation to approve a water diversion was not the only critical mistake made as the catastrophe unfolded. Lahaina’s emergency alert sirens never sounded, a decision that Maui Emergency Management Agency chief Herman Andaya has publicly defended with vigor, even as many residents reportedly did not know of the fires until seeing them or smelling smoke.
Andaya had zero prior career experience in crisis management before getting the job for Maui County. He did, however, serve as the chief of staff for the former mayor of Maui between 2011 and 2017, and also worked for the Maui housing administration from 2003 to 2007.
Andaya resigned late Thursday following backlash over his role
At some point, the local 911 system went down, according to Hawaii News Now.
The tragedy has so far claimed 111 lives, and that figure may continue to climb as emergency workers comb through the wreckage and attempt to locate the hundreds of civilians still unaccounted for. It is feared that many of the yet-to-be-discovered dead may be children, according to the Journal.
Green’s office, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the Maui Emergency Management Agency all did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
PDF: West Maui Land Co Letter | PDF (scribd.com)