Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge visitors center as the 2019 fire approaches. Photo by USFWS.
BY KARI COBB
Known for their lush, tropical, humid climate, the Hawaiian Islands typically do not conjure images of wildfires, but wildfires do occur on the islands. Maui, the second largest Hawaiian island, is home to rainforests and mountains, but it also has arid desert climates, with some areas experiencing little to no rainfall and dry, sunny, hot weather for much of the year.
Over the last several years, Maui has experienced one of the worst droughts on record since 2000 and an increased threat of severe wildfire activity. On July 11, 2019, the Central Maui Fire started. It built up momentum as strong north trade winds drove the fire toward the town of Kihei. After attempts by the Maui Fire Department to control its spread and protect infrastructure, the fire burned across the boundary of Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge. By the time it was fully contained on July 28, the fire had burned 10,000 acres of abandoned sugar cane fields and forced thousands of residents from their homes. Within Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, 84 acres were burned and the fire came within 50 feet of the visitor center, volunteer bunkhouse, and maintenance yard.
The refuge includes one of the last remaining intact wetlands in Hawaii, which provides essential breeding and foraging habitat for thousands of migratory shorebirds and three endangered endemic water birds, including the ae‘o (Hawaiian stilt), ‘alae ke‘oke‘o (Hawaiian coot). The endangered ʻōpeʻapeʻa (Hawaiian hoary bat) has also been monitored foraging in the area.
The fire left large amounts of dead trees and plants within Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, which posed threats to human safety and continued fire risk. Invasive plants quickly began colonizing the area, posing an even greater threat of future wildfires. Fire-damaged trees and fire suppression efforts resulted in damage to nearly 1,900 feet of fencing that was essential to protect endangered native waterbirds.
In response to the fire, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assembled a burned area rehabilitation team to provide recommendations for the 84 acres of refuge lands and infrastructure impacted by the fire. Burned area rehabilitation is intended to protect resources by repairing or improving burned landscapes unlikely to recovery naturally to desired management conditions and to repair or replace fire-damaged minor structures.
After the initial assessment by the team, Keālia Pond National Wildlife Refuge immediately began repairs to the fencing and removed the deer and pigs that migrated into the area. The repairs were completed in January 2020.
The removal of standing dead trees across 80 acres was completed in May 2021. The project was expanded to remove a five-acre plot of dense, non-native kiawe trees from refuge lands adjacent to the Maalaea Power Plant. The stand of trees presented a significant wildfire threat to the facility, which distributes 80 percent of Maui’s electricity.
The refuge is implementing the final recommendations by managing invasive plant species and planting native vegetation. Refuge staff contracted with a local nursery to receive 1,000 native plants per month for three years. Dense plantings of native species within the 80-acre swath will establish a corridor of drought- and fire-resistant vegetation.
The rehabilitation work requires the commitment and care of numerous refuge staff, as well as the dedication of AmeriCorps volunteers and the local community. The refuge has a team of dedicated volunteers that averages 300 plantings per week and is organizing a monthly community workday to bring in additional volunteers.
This is the type of work that will increase under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provides an additional $325 million over five years for the Interior Department to expand burned area restoration activities.
Kari Cobb is the public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the National Interagency Fire Center.