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Maui has a safety plan for wildfires, but has struggled to fund it

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

One of the biggest questions in the aftermath of the devastating wildfires in Maui is how prepared the island was for fire. Officials have known for almost a decade that the area could protect itself better by managing grasses and vegetation differently. But according to Hawaii fire experts, not much was done. Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk joins us now from Maui with more. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Lauren, as we've been talking about since this happened, wildfires are not uncommon in Hawaii, though a fire of this scale certainly is. You were recently in Lahaina. Remind us of the fire risks in that landscape.

SOMMER: Yeah. I think a lot of people picture, you know, lush, green mountains of Hawaii, right? But on that side of West Maui where Lahaina is, it looks more like California. There's just dry grasses surrounding all the houses there. It's kind of up to your knees. Much of it is former sugar cane fields that are now filled with invasive grasses. And I saw that at the home of one resident, Gordon Firestein. And from his yard, you can see just kind of the blue of the ocean and then this blackened burn scar of the fire, and it - which almost made it all the way to his neighborhood.

GORDON FIRESTEIN: Hard to process - trying to deal with the cognitive dissonance of the beauty and the ash.

SOMMER: You know, I think it was even tougher for Firestein because he's one of the people that's been trying to prevent fires like this.

SUMMERS: Oh, really? I mean, tell us, what's he doing to help prevent wildfires?

SOMMER: Yeah. He's actually from California. So when he moved here 15 years ago, he knew it was a problem, and he and his neighbors started a Firewise community. It's a program from the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association, and it gives neighborhoods just a guidebook about what to work on, like evacuation and defensible space, you know, which is clearing the brush around a home or at the edges of a town.

SUMMERS: And how have those efforts been working, Lauren?

SOMMER: Yeah. Firestein says they've reached a lot of neighbors with their message, but a big problem is that nothing is mandatory. In states like California, if you live in a high-risk zone, you're required by state law to clear defensible space, and there are actually inspections.

FIRESTEIN: I certainly hope that that's part of the post-fire process, is that we begin to look seriously at California, for example, as a model.

SUMMERS: And the government has also examined some of these fire risks, right? What'd they find?

SOMMER: Yeah, they did. And nine years ago, government agencies were part of a bigger plan to look at what Maui had to do. It recommended evacuation planning, doing fuel breaks, which is managing all that dry grass at the edge of town so there's kind of like a buffer when a wildfire comes. To be clear, it's not a guarantee to stop a wildfire, especially in those high winds, but it's really shown to reduce the risk.

SUMMERS: And did they follow through?

SOMMER: Yeah. I talked to someone who helped write the plan. Elizabeth Pickett is with the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, which is a nonprofit that works on fire policy. She says a handful of projects were completed, but that's all.

ELIZABETH PICKETT: The scope and level and amount that needed to get done was never really reached because we actually really never found funds or capacity to do the full scale of what we would have liked to have done.

SOMMER: And another Maui County report found the same thing - that funding was a big problem.

SUMMERS: So are Hawaii officials considering doing things differently in the wake of this fire?

SOMMER: Yeah, Hawaii's governor acknowledged that managing the land and invasive grasses is something they'll need to examine, but funding this is a challenge, you know, not just in Hawaii but across the country in communities at risk because grass and brush, I mean, it grows back. So communities have to find this funding every year, and it's a big issue.

SUMMERS: Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk in Maui, thank you.

SOMMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.