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Lessons for Israel from the Maui wildfire

Supporting local agriculture and careful maintenance of infrastructure are essential.

Two Hawaii Army National Guard CH47 Chinooks perform aerial water-bucket drops on the island of Maui to assist in fighting the wildfires, Aug. 9, 2023. Credit: U.S. National Guard Video by Air Force Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson.
Two Hawaii Army National Guard CH47 Chinooks perform aerial water-bucket drops on the island of Maui to assist in fighting the wildfires, Aug. 9, 2023. Credit: U.S. National Guard Video by Air Force Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson.
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant and guide connecting Israel and the United States.

The recent wildfire in Maui was the worst such disaster in the U.S. in over a century. Our thoughts and prayers are with families and friends who have lost loved ones. There are to date 115 confirmed deaths and hundreds still missing. What happened? What were the conditions that caused such a horrific event? Could it have been prevented or stopped? Are there lessons for Israel to learn from the disaster?

The wildfire likely started when a powerline came into contact with highly flammable vegetation. Due to a hurricane in the vicinity, there were sustained winds of over 70 miles per hour. Trying to effectively suppress a wildfire in those conditions is almost impossible.

Reports indicate that there was insufficient warning as the fire swept through the town of Lahaina and spread rapidly from house to house. Many in Lahaina do not own personal vehicles and had difficulty escaping the oncoming firestorm. There are difficult discussions taking place about what should have been done to facilitate evacuation of the residents. Certainly, Israel’s emergency services will be able to learn from an after-action review.

I am a former field and national manager overseeing wildfire and energy programs for the U.S. Forest Service, and it seems to me that there are a few key reasons why Israel’s wildfire risk is different from the situation in Hawaii.

First, most construction in Israel is concrete-based. Wildfires can blow up propane tanks and gas lines and find ways to enter a building, but concrete-based construction is generally less vulnerable than wood-based construction. Unfortunately, wood-based construction is typical in Hawaii and much of the U.S.

Unlike Hawaii, Israel has to contend with a higher percentage of ignitions from arson. Also, Israel can have strong windy conditions, but not sustained winds of hurricane force.

There are two questions Israel should ask:

1) Why were there such highly flammable natural fuels, namely large expanses of African native, buffel, molasses and guinea grasses growing next to town?

The reason was the demise of pineapple and sugar cane plantations in the 1990s. Subsidies for growing these crops were removed during those years as the U.S. adopted economic policies that were more globally focused, ending support for U.S. growers.

The result was that huge tracts of once-productive irrigated farmland were abandoned, allowing invasive species an opportunity to take hold. These particular species were brought to Hawaii because they were thought to be beneficial for grazing and stabilizing soil. Unfortunately, they were also highly flammable.

Israel can take a lesson from this: It is one more reason to support local Israeli farmers. Agricultural lands surround many Israeli communities and irrigated farmlands surrounding a community protect that community, providing natural wildfire protection. We all appreciate inexpensive produce due to competition, but we must ensure support for a robust local agricultural sector.

In terms of flammable species, some may draw analogies to the JNF/KKL’s planting of Aleppo pines in Israel, because they are highly flammable. There are significant differences, however. First, Aleppo pines are native to the Land of Israel. Historically, the land and forests of Israel had been decimated by millennia of overgrazing and a Turkish-built railroad that used almost any tree available. Today, the JNF/KKL is successfully replanting native tree species—many mentioned in the Bible—because the soil has been stabilized by the previously planted pine forests, which provide partial forest cover in which these species can take root.

2) What about the powerlines in Maui, which were the likely ignition source? These powerlines were apparently transporting energy from recently developed renewable sources (wind and solar) to the community. Developing renewable energy may or may not have ecological and economic advantages over traditional sources. But part of the trade-off analysis and follow-through must involve the maintenance of those powerlines, which includes continuous clearing of vegetation. In the case of Maui, early indications are that the maintenance work was insufficient.

Israel is developing renewable energy sources across its limited landscape: wind in the north and solar in the south. Power from wind farms, solar farms or solar collectors does not just magically appear in our homes. When analyzing the pros and cons of power generation proposals, transmission plus the cost of adequate powerline maintenance must be part of the analysis.

Hawaii has just provided a horrific lesson from which, God willing, we will all learn. There are many factors that influence wildfire ignition potential and spread, beyond wildfire suppression capabilities. Supporting local Israeli agriculture and carefully reviewing power transmission and maintenance plans are essential to protecting Israel from catastrophic wildfires.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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