The Maui wildfires have dominated the news cycle over the past week. The confusing and misleading narrative on social media and in many major press outlets has only added to the damage facing the people of Maui. The death toll from the wildfires is still climbing, and the stories coming from the ground are unbearable: people have jumped into the ocean to stop from burning; they have watched a home that had already been ravaged by tourism be dissolved without warning. This is the unimaginable grief and destruction of the climate crisis.
We will keep fighting to stop this from continuing and worsening around the world by ending the era of fossil fuels and ushering in a justly sourced and implemented transition to renewable energy. But the climate movement also needs to stand with the people of Maui right now as they grieve, rebuild, and resist relentless colonialism. Real estate interests are already looking at how they can profit off of the rebuilding. Much of the news coverage has described Lahaina—a rich and tight-knit community that was once the royal capital of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi—as simply a tourist destination. This is the climate crisis: inextricably tied to capitalism, colonialism, and extraction over people.
Decolonizing the Wildfire Response
Even as many people have erased the reality facing Maui residents by focusing on mourning their own vacations, still others have—even more egregiously—continued to take those vacations, despite clear calls from the local community not to come.
“Leave,” said Lahaina resident Alika Peneku in an interview with CNN. “Give us the chance to heal. If any one of those tourists’ homes burned down, they wouldn’t want anybody outside their home doing fun excursions. They would want time to mourn. They would want time to rebuild.”
NBC News reported that many Native Hawaiians have chosen to remain as close to their homes as possible instead of evacuating—even if only ashes remain—as an act of community and resistance in spite of settler- colonialism and a rampant tourist industry that has been trying to displace them for years. Maui County Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez says that local efforts are “taking charge” of the response, citing distrust of the disappointing formal government response, historically-grounded fear that those “with money are trying to capitalize on the trauma,” and the urgent need to get critical supplies to the people who have chosen to stay and fight for their home.
Wildfires, Climate Change, and Utilities
Distrust rightfully extends to the leading utility company as well—according to NBC affiliate King5, a class action suit has been filed that cites Hawaiian Electric Co’s own documents “showing it was aware that preemptive power shut-offs such as those used in California were an effective strategy to prevent wildfires but never adopted them.”
This has led to some saying that blame should be put on the power company instead of on climate change and the fossil fuel companies directly causing it. But we say: it’s both, they reinforce each other, and this is just another example of why we need to change the way utilities are structured so they are more accountable to the public.
Axios reported on the ways in which climate change helped create the conditions for the Maui wildfires: droughts, rising temperatures, and more intense storm conditions like high winds. Add to that an investor-owned utility company that is hesitant to take any preventative measures that might hurt profits, plus an island that has been largely cast aside by entire industries as a tourist attraction, and you get the devastation currently facing Maui.
Wildfires displace Indigenous communities across the world
Meanwhile, wildfires continue to rage across the world as well, including in Canada, where Indigenous communities are also often on the frontlines of raging wildfires. This week, over 230 wildfires are burning in Canada’s Northwest Territories, which are nearly 50 percent Indigenous. All 20,000 residents of Yellowknife are evacuating via land and air as wildfires approach the territory’s capital city. Read more on climate change, wildfires, and decolonizing the response in 350 Canada’s resource here. Donate to the United Way’s emergency fund for wildfire evacuees from the Northwest Territories here.
So what can we do, right now, to offer meaningful support to the people of Maui?
- Correct the narrative whenever we see it, and oppose real estate interests and big business trying to capitalize on the destruction.
- Prioritize the frontline and Indigenous communities, and support the response efforts that they are leading.
- Donate to the Hawaiʻi People’s Fund, which is dedicated to providing a safe and trusted conduit to move kōkua (help/aid) quickly in support of community organizers and organizations already engaged in this work.