Wildfires burn tourist towns in more ways than one

Next month, West Maui will officially welcome back tourists to the island on the two-month anniversary of the devastating wildfires that left 97 dead.

On September 10 Hawai’i Governor Josh Green signed an emergency proclamation [ PDF ] that will end the area’s strong discouragement of travelers on October 8 — at least in part because the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimated that the island has lost more than $350 million since the fire.

The state, and numerous small businesses within it, massively depend on tourism. The University of Hawai’i estimated that roughly a quarter of the state’s economy is represented by tourism, including 216,000 jobs and yielding nearly $17.8 billion in tourist spending. Tourism generates an estimated 80 percent of Maui County’s economy specifically, and that’s not likely to increase with airlines still cutting flights to the island.

“Without this influx of cash, a distressing number of local businesses will certainly close for good,” according to the University of Hawai’i.

Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green's office.
Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green’s office.

The residents of Hawai’i have a love-hate relationship with tourists. While the industry may support a large chunk of the state’s economy, around two-thirds of residents hold anti-tourism sentiments, in part because Hawai’i is still struggling to reopen businesses that shuttered during the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the contradictory messaging of the state being run for tourists at the expense of local people.

The complications in firefighters’ response to the wildfire disaster demonstrated some of these dynamics playing out in real-time. As firefighters tried to get to the fire and worked to contain it, hoses ran dry and state officials delayed releasing water from a nearby reservoir. In the weeks since, a centuries-old fight has rekindled between developers and Native Hawaiians over who owns Maui’s water.

Wildfires igniting already-present tensions between locals and tourists isn’t new, especially in communities that have come to rely on encouraging travel. A growing body of research has found that wildfires pose an “existential” threat to the tourism industry as a whole.

Greece and Italy fear a collapse of their entire tourism industry as wildfire and heat waves ravage the Mediterranean. Portugal’s tourism may be out $38 million annually by 2030 because of worsening wildland fires. Fires throughout California’s Sierra Nevada region have led to an increasingly damaging tourism image for the area as a whole.

Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green's office.
Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green’s office.

Numerous studies point toward wildfires continuing to intensify and becoming more widespread unless emissions are reduced. As Maui continues its balancing act of catering to tourists while leaving its locals calling for a more diversified economy, it will also have to reckon with wildfires becoming a more common occurrence in its visitors’ vacations.

“I can say that if we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to be able to afford to live on Maui,” Green said in a recent press release. “The land of Lāhainā is reserved for its people as they return and rebuild.”

Wildland firefighter pay may be cut at month’s end – or not

Nearing a congressional deadline, one bill is making its way through the nation’s legislature attempting to stop a tens-of-thousands of dollars’ reduction to wildland firefighter pay.

A previously enacted federal wildland firefighter pay increase is set to expire on October 1, an increase that would subsequently reduce firefighter pay by either 50 percent of their current salary or by $20,000, whichever was lower. This federal pay increase was first granted in August 2021 as part of the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, but the raise itself was only a temporary measure.

Without prompt action from Congress, federal firefighters are facing five-figure pay cuts next month.

A piece of legislation that has been introduced to Congress, the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (WFPPA), would stop the decrease from taking effect by permanently increasing wildland firefighter pay. This Act would authorize premium pay for federal firefighters portal-to-portal whenever they respond to a wildfire, prescribed burn, severity incident, or an incident that the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior determines is similar in nature. Premium pay would not be paid to wildland firefighters during an initial response or initial attack fire if the wildfire is contained within 36 hours. If passed, the pay scale and premium pay regulation would take effect on October 1, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The USFS employee union has warned that Cal Fire and other non-fed firefighter employers are anticipating that a third of federal firefighters could likely walk because they’re fed up with their paycheck uncertainty.

A similar bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2021, but it never got past its introduction.

Tim Hart
Tim Hart

The Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, named after a smokejumper who died while parachuting into the Eicks Fire in New Mexico earlier that year, would establish a pay scale that would increase yearly and institute hazard pay for wildland firefighters.

But the WFPPA, along with numerous other bills, is threatened by yet another pending government shutdown — if lawmakers can’t also allocate funding to the other 437 government agencies for this fiscal year.

In the event of a shutdown, thousands of federal workers would be furloughed without pay.

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters

There were 11,187 wildland firefighters (GS-9 and below) employed through the USFS as of July 25, the agency says on its website. Funding proposed for the next fiscal year would reportedly support the hiring of 970 more firefighter positions, but Congress has to make that budget a reality.

“We struggle to hire and retain firefighters in areas of the country where the labor pool is low and pay isn’t as competitive as we would like,” they said. “Our goal is for firefighters to have a sustainable, long-term career that rewards them for the unique and hazardous work they do.”

The USFS is hoping to hire around 150 new firefighters in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska area. Interested in applying? Click here to see the positions’ full details.

Fires burn more tree cover every year due to climate change

A new report has confirmed what forest managers have been warning the public about for years: Forest fires are becoming more widespread thanks to climate change.

The report, created by researchers at the University of Maryland, broke down global satellite data and found wildfires were the cause of 26 to 29 percent of global forest loss between 2001 and 2019. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), further analyzes the researchers’ maps  to estimate just how many more acres of forests were lost to fires compared with two decades ago.

We calculated that forest fires now result in 3 million more hectares (~7.4 million acres) of tree cover loss per year compared with 2001 … and accounted for more than one-quarter of all tree cover loss over the past 20 years,” OCHA said.

Worldwide forest loss

The researchers also reported that 70 percent of the tree cover lost to fires occurred in boreal forests, with fire-related tree loss increasing 3 percent every year since 2001. The cause of the increase was northern high-latitude areas warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet, contributing to longer fire seasons.

Worldwide forest lossTree cover loss from fires in tropical regions also increased by 5 percent per year since 2001, resulting in roughly 15 percent of global tree cover loss from fire over the 20-year period. The loss was reportedly worsened by increasing forest degradation attributed to deforestation and agriculture expansion.

“There is no solution for bringing fire activity back down to historical levels without drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and breaking the fire-climate feedback loop,” OCHA said in response to the report. “Improving forest resilience by ending deforestation and forest degradation is key to preventing future fires.”

The full report is [HERE].

Archaeologists protect history from both fires and firefighters

The nation’s newest national monument has a long history of fighting off fire. Its future may mean defending its artifacts against firefighters.

The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — the Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in northern Arizona — was formally designated in August. The monument land includes three areas to the north and south of the Grand Canyon and takes up approximately 917,600 acres, according to the Forest Service.

Dedicating the new national monument
President Biden established the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in northern Arizona. The signing event brought together state and federal politicians, officials, and tribal leaders. August 2023 DOI photo.

These lands are at the heart of many tribes in the region, including the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Navajo Nation, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Yavapai Prescott, Pueblo of Zuni, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

The tribes have called this area home for around 23,000 years, a history told through the numerous dwelling sites, pottery, and numerous other artifacts in the area.

Although a passing wildfire can damage artifacts, the fire itself isn’t often the main concern of the archaeologists in charge of protecting the monument. The cultural resources have existed in spite of the countless wildfires that have burned across the landscape, fires that subsequently give life to the Kaibab National Forest that surrounds the Grand Canyon. More often, archaeologists’ main concern is making sure the efforts of firefighters to contain a wildfire don’t put artifacts at risk.

“We’re not as concerned with the fire itself when fire-sensitive sites like wooden cabins and hogans are not present, but the tactics we often use to contain wildfire like constructing fuel breaks,” explained Michael Terlep, a district archaeologist for the North Kaibab Ranger District.

“The blade of a bulldozer, for example, scrapes the surface and disturbs at least the first six inches or more of topsoil, which might contain pottery, artifacts, arrowheads, tools, and prehistoric habitations. There is also the potential for ancestral burials to be disturbed.”

Terlep was one of the four resource advisors assigned to the Kane Fire that started on August 4 just north of the Grand Canyon. There, he was tasked with working ahead of crews, surveying the land, making sure fire suppression didn’t give way to cultural destruction.

“We were called immediately because anytime firefighting activities might disturb an archaeological site, we can be an asset, and advise on the best way forward,” Terlep said.

Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument presidential designation

Resource advisors have been deployed to wildfires since the 1970s, according to NPS. However, increasing recruitment and training efforts for the positions have reportedly become a national priority for the agency.

In the past four years, 1,300 students from federal, state, tribal, and local agencies completed the NPS resource advisor training, NPS notes on its website. “This represents an increase of 125 percent compared with the preceding four-year period. Hundreds of the graduates went on to assist on wildfires and other emergency incidents as resource advisors and archaeologists .”

Interested in becoming a resource advisor yourself? Sign up to be notified when the NPS virtual introductory course for 2024 opens in the spring.

Louisiana’s drought isn’t record-breaking, so why is its wildfire season?

The state’s largest wildfire on record is still burning, already covering more than Louisiana’s annual average of burned acres. 

The arson-caused Tiger Island Fire has burned more than 31,000 acres and is now estimated  at just 50 percent containment. An ABC News report said law enforcement are searching for the arsonist — and offering a $2000 reward.

Tiger island Fire
Tiger Island Fire, August 27 — inciweb photo.

It’s only one of the nearly 600 wildland fires that have burned across the state in 2023. The vast majority of the fires have been burning in the Beauregard Parish area near the state’s southwest corner. Officials said excess fuels from trees knocked down during hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 and Ida in 2021 are feeding the fires.

Some  have also blamed drought for the record fire season.

However, the Pelican State’s drought isn’t close to breaking drought records, so why is it breaking wildfire records?

Nearly all of Louisiana is under severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, according to the U.S Drought Monitor. Despite that, NOAA data shows the state’s current drought isn’t close to being one of the driest on record. July of this year was the state’s 17th driest on record, with the period between June and July recorded as the 14th driest on record and the period between May and July being the 11th driest on record.

So, if drought isn’t the primary cause of the state’s wildland fires, what is? Other than a record-breaking number of acres burned, Louisiana this year is also breaking numerous temperature records.

July was Louisiana’s hottest month ever recorded, the National Weather Service reported, and Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on August 11 when heat indices peaked at 120 degrees. Heat smashed the highest temperature records in numerous areas across Louisiana on August 27.

Drought can contribute to drying, but record-breaking heat can worsen and increase withering, priming vegetation into excellent wildfire fuel, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Hotter temperatures evaporate more moisture from soil and vegetation, drying out trees, shrubs and grasses, and turning leaf litter and fallen branches into kindling,” according  to the EDF. The extreme temperatures showed just how much of a chokehold the heat had on wildfires in the region when intense downpours on August 29 did little to help with numerous wildfires throughout the state.

Under the most extreme circumstances, Louisiana could see upwards of a 12-degree average temperature increase over the next 75 years, and if it does, the state’s bayous should expect wildfires to become an even more common occurrence.

BY THE WAY, loyal fans and other readers, let me introduce our new pyrojournalist Hunter Bassler, hired by me and the IAWF after a recommendation by Judd Slivka, who was for many years the best fire reporter in the western United States (besides Jeff Barnard and the inimitable Sherry Devlin), whom I’m sure many of you remember from his fire reporting days with the Arizona Republic.

Hunter BasslerHunter Bassler is a digital producer and reporter for KSDK 5 On Your Side in St. Louis, Missouri, reporting on environmental, climate, and infrastructure news and issues. Hunter was also a digital producer and reporter for 12News in Phoenix, focused on Arizona’s environmental water crisis, infrastructure, and history. Before that Hunter reported on Brexit and Artificial Intelligence in Brussels at the regulatory wire service MLex, wrote and produced content on global free speech issues for the online and NPR-member station program Global Journalist, and worked as multimedia editor for Columbia, Missouri’s entertainment magazine Vox.

Hunter graduated from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s in Convergence Journalism. In their spare time, Hunter enjoys watching movies, hiking, and spending time with the love of their life, Jess.

 ~ Kelly Andersson

Louisiana’s governor asks the impossible: Please don’t barbecue on Labor Day

One look at Louisiana’s traditional barbecue practice can set off alarm bells in the heads of firefighters.

The French Louisianan practice of Cochon de lait (co-shaun-du-lay) translates literally to “suckling pig” and involves pit roasting a young pig. Images of the practice show a long row of logs and hot coals blazing with high flames surrounded with split hogs hung on racks.

Cochon de laits were originally cooked over fireplaces in early-American kitchens, but the most common method today is in an outdoor cooking shed, grill or open fire pit,” according to the state’s official travel authority. “A fire that is constantly maintained should cook a 50-pound pig in about five or six hours, giving you plenty of time to kick back and relax with family and friends. It’s a good bet you’ll find it at a variety of fairs, festivals and tailgates around the state.”

The very open flame barbecue practice, along with the state’s affinity with smoked meats, shows why Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards may have felt it was necessary to explicitly ask the state’s residents to not barbecue for Labor Day weekend — and the beginning of the football season this year — as numerous wildfires burn across the state.

“We know [Labor Day] typically involves a lot of cookouts and barbecues, especially with the return of football,” Edwards said during a press conference on Aug. 30. “I’m asking that people not engage in barbecuing and so forth outside where a fire can start.”

The request itself isn’t out of the ordinary. Louisiana has been under a statewide burn ban since August because of extreme heat, widespread severe drought, and ongoing wildfires in the southwestern portion of the state. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry also banned prescribed burns, and Edwards prohibited all agricultural burning with an executive order. However, what media found especially unusual about the governor’s request was that it coincided with the weekend that rings in the final days of summer barbecuing and the beginning of LSU football tailgating barbecuing.

“Let’s be patient and not create more work for firefighters in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “We need to prevent what is already a serious situation from becoming worse.”

The state’s residents may need to be very patient. This year’s burn ban has already far exceeded the length of the state’s previous statewide burn ban in 2015, which lasted only 10 days. On August 7 Louisiana Fire Marshal Daniel Wallis expanded the in-effect burn ban to include burning on both public and private property.

“This new burn ban order … prohibits ALL private burning, with no limitations,” the Office of Louisiana State Fire Marshal said. “The already extremely dry conditions statewide, and the concern over first responder safety in these dangerously high temperatures, have worsened as wildfires spread across Louisiana and significant rain relief remains elusive in weather forecasts.”

Time will tell whether Louisianans will obey the burn ban to stop further wildfire tragedies, or stick to tradition and risk igniting more fires.