Fighting Maui’s fires is complicated by logistical challenges and the island’s cultural significance

Cleanup of areas destroyed in the Maui wildfires Given the island’s significant cultural sites, its rich history, including a royal residence and possibly the remains of people who died in the disaster, it could be shaping up to be one of the most complex ever, federal officials said.

The first phase of the cleanup began at the end of August. About 200 Environmental Protection Agency workers in protective white clothing removed toxic household waste from Upper Kula and the city of Lahaina, including gas cylinders, pesticides, fertilizers and solar energy battery packs. They monitored air quality and took samples for heavy metals and asbestos.

The EPA expects to hand over responsibility later this month or in November to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will oversee the cleanup of remaining debris over the next six to 12 months. About $400 million is budgeted, but the cost could be higher to remove an estimated 400,000 to 700,000 tons of construction debris from about 1,600 parcels of land that once housed homes and businesses.

“This will be the most complex firefighting effort yet,” said Cory Koger, a debris issues expert with the Corps who has helped clean up seven wildfire sites since 2017 including the Paradise, California fire It killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 buildings, as well as several others in Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico.

“We need to speed up the cleanup for several reasons. First, they are still residents of the area. There are still viable businesses…This is a public health issue,” Koger continued, adding that there are also significant “cultural concerns” associated with debris removal.

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“There is this compulsion to do it quickly but do it right,” he said.

The forest fire on August 8 killed at least 97 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings, most of them houses. Seven weeks later, the The first group of residents returned to examine the remains of their property and collect any belongings they could find.

Compared to Fighting fires in Oregon or CaliforniaThis presents what EPA Incident Commander Steve Calanog calls “unique challenges” for his team. Not only does the waste disposal occur on an island in the Pacific Ocean, but there are no certified hazardous waste sites on Maui. Therefore, the EPA is forced to transport hazardous waste to licensed disposal sites on the West Coast.

Cultural observers, Native Hawaiians from Maui, also accompany the EPA and ultimately the Corps in the cleanup effort. Lahaina was once the royal residence by King Kamehameha, who unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the chiefs of the other islands. According to the National Park Service, his successors made it the capital from 1820 to 1845.

Before work begins on a property, a cultural assessment is carried out to determine whether anything may be of cultural significance, such as burial sites or markers and certain types of plants or trees. The monitoring authorities are there to ensure that no further harm occurs as a result of the points identified in the assessment.

“Lahaina has tremendous cultural and historical significance. We have to work with great precision, care and respect,” said Calanog. “And then of course the death toll. There is significant loss of life. These are unique aspects that make this work a special challenge for us.”

Hawaiian kings and queens are buried in the cemetery of the 200-year-old historic Waiola Church, which burned down along with the nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission. The fire also decimated historic Front Street – home to restaurants, bars and tourist shops – and severely damaged what is believed to be the largest banyan tree in the United States.

“There will be more attention to detail. “They need to go slower,” said Hawaii native Micah Kamohoali’i, an archaeologist and cultural expert. “You can’t dig too deep into the ground because so many generations of history are buried in the ground.”

As of September 29, the EPA had completed cleanup of over 1,000 of the 1,598 parcels required to be cleared across Maui. All of the parcels cleared so far are residential, and the agency expects the remaining residential lots to be completed in the coming weeks. Work has begun on the first of about 150 commercial properties, but officials estimate it will take longer.

The Corps will then use excavators, bulldozers and dump trucks to clear debris such as standing buildings, vehicles and dead trees. Property owners must consent to the Corps entering their property, and a bill being debated in the Maui County Council will give residents the option of having the Corps do the cleanup for free or allowing them to hire their own contractors. If human remains were found, work would be stopped.

Much of the debate over waste disposal revolves around environmental concerns and the desire to rebuild. Last month, authorities said the Hawaii Department of Health reported that sampling and monitoring of the burn sites “revealed no evidence of poor air quality or dangerous levels of airborne contaminants.” But county officials warned that the ash “may contain toxic substances.” , cancer-causing chemicals with debris such as broken glass, exposed electrical wires and other items.”

There are also discussions about where to dispose of waste taken away by the Corps.

There are two landfills on Maui, a spokesman for the county’s Joint Information Center said, and the island currently does not have landfill space to dispose of all the waste from the fire. One of the landfills, Central Maui, was near capacity and an expansion project worth more than $17 million was planned for next year. Emergency planners are considering accelerating plans for this expansion.

The Corps said plans are being developed to transport the debris to a temporary site and eventually to permanent disposal sites in Maui County. Some of the concrete and metal would be recycled.

“Of course, there is a great need to respect and accommodate the wishes of those who wish to return to their former homes and businesses,” said Wayne Tanaka, executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. “But we don’t want their trauma to be compounded by future harm to themselves, their families or even future generations from avoidable toxic exposure.”

Based on the timeline of past disasters such as the Paradise, California fire in 2018, reconstruction will occur, but it could take years. Much of Lahaina is still littered with burned vehicles, blackened debris, crumbled metal roofs, broken glass, propane tanks and the foundations of former homes and businesses.

Still, Maui County Council Vice Chairman Yuki Lei Sugimura often hears from many concerned residents who want to return and build a new home.

“People want us to move forward because they want to be uplifted, and that’s probably the most important thing we hear,” she said. “‘You know how fast this is going to happen, and do you know how we’re going to line up?'”

Follow Michael Casey on X, formerly Twitter: mcasey1

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