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The Lahaina inferno has drawn out the conspiracy theorists, touting everything from laser rays to artificial fuels. Add in the Gaea cult assigning it to global warming. The truth is likely even more tragic because prosaic. It’s the foreseeable consequence of readily observable folly, lacking only the right conditions to set things in motion. This photo (cribbed from the AP) tells the tale:
This is a view looking south. The built-up area in the background is Lahaina. The unburnt swath of buildings on the near side – apparently protected by a vacant area – give the direction of the wind driving the fire: out of the east, towards the shore.
It’s the sharp line between the buildings and the blackened area that’s a tell for anyone familiar with land use patterns. That doesn’t occur organically, it’s the result of enforced policy. And sure enough, Maui has a directed growth policy incorporating urban growth boundaries (PDF at link). That’s part one of the puzzle: The buildings are crammed together and the prices are driving out the locals. As in California, the supply is artificially constrained and demand is high due to a benevolent climate, in spite of intrusive and stupid government.
Now about those burnt-over black areas. Who was ignorant enough to grow combustible crops right up to housing? No one. Those aren’t crop areas any more. Once upon a time they were sugar cane plantations. But the sugar cane industry closed down in Maui almost seven years ago, and the Lahaina fields were abandoned even earlier, in the ’90s. Hawaiian cane sugar became non-competitive due to rising land prices (i.e., taxes), increased wages (unions and competition from tourism), and the lowering of sugar tariffs.
In a free market, those fields would have been converted to some more economical use. In spite of talk about cattle ranching or biofuels, nothing has happened. The unmanaged land has been overrun with fast-growing, combustible non-native vegetation – largely grasses that support a flash fire – right up to the edge of the built-up area. What might have become more housing and businesses instead turned into a tinder box.
The town and dead of Lahaina were killed with blue land use policies, not death rays.Published in