It’s so obvious there is even a poem about it: “A Fence or an Ambulance,” by Joseph Malins.
The often-quoted poem is about a lovely but perilous walk along a cliff trail, triggering the debate, “Put a fence ‘round the edge of the cliff, or an ambulance down in the valley.”
A wise fellow says a fence will prevent falls, a doctor says modern medicine can repair any injuries, while others say just outlaw walking near the cliff. The poem ends without resolution.
Do we know enough to prepare for and prevent disasters, or do we just treat the injuries?
That appears to be the question for Hawaii’s leaders as they continue to explore the fire danger that threatened Lahaina in a wind-driven brush fire on Aug. 24, 2018 and then returned as a fiery tragedy on Aug. 8 of this year, killing at least 115 people and leveling the town.
A Washington Post report from Aug. 22 compared the fires: “The West Maui fires of 2018 torched 21 houses, 27 cars and more than 2,100 acres, causing $4.3 million in damage … In terms of homes lost, it was the most destructive wildfire in state history — until now.” In just five years, two similar West Maui August fires.
After the 2018 fire, Maui residents demanded better preparation and planning so that there would be better evacuation plans, the water supply for firefighting would not fail, and cell phones would work.
Words and promises, and then another fire, this time with deaths.
Five days after the 2018 blaze, then-Mayor Alan Arakawa spoke before a crowded Lahaina community meeting to say, “We could have had a lot of deaths. We could have lost a lot of Lahaina and our tourist area, but instead, we didn’t.”
Now, with a record that Hawaii has a dangerous and lethal fire season fueled by acres of dry grass and high winds, there is a question of what happens next.
The Star-Advertiser report on the 2018 fire said
13 homes were destroyed. Victims said they had only minutes to flee as the wind-driven flames destroyed their homes in a small Native Hawaiian settlement in Kauaula Valley.
The Star-Advertiser’s 2018 report ended by noting that the fire brought back memories of “a massive 2007 brush fire that also threatened the settlement.” So three times fire has threatened West Maui.
Last week, the paper reported that Gov. Josh Green in an interview said he is awaiting information from a state investigation of the most recent fire.
“No one has instructed the Department of the Attorney General to leave anything off limits — everything remains on the table, and we will go where the facts lead,” Green said.
Getting hard facts continues to be difficult. At press time last week, about 2,000 of the children who went to one of Lahaina’s four public schools still have not enrolled in other Hawaii public schools. Also the estimated number of missing or unaccounted for residents is still close to 1,000.
For all of Hawaii’s residents, the question still to be answered is what will be the tragedy’s legacy.
Will it include serious fire prevention rules and clear, responsible actions by government officials to assure citizens that this never happens again? Or will it be meaningless promises, studies and calls for action?
Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.