How settler colonialism, oligarchy, and the climate emergency fueled catastrophic Maui fires

Seventh-generation native Hawaiian Kaniela Ing in an Aug. 10 interview with described how the once lush island was transformed into a place ripe for a disastrous wildfire. There is nothing natural about this disaster, he said.Seventh-generation native Hawaiian Kaniela Ing in an Aug. 10 interview with described how the once lush island was transformed into a place ripe for a disastrous wildfire. There is nothing natural about this disaster, he said. (Image: Screenshot from interview)

Seventh-generation native Hawaiian Kaniela Ing explains why there is nothing natural about the devastating Maui wildfires.

The haunting images of scorched-Earth Lahaina, destroyed by Maui’s worst wildfire fueled by winds from passing Hurricane Dora, remind us of how easily nature can wield its destructive force.

Yet the still unfolding catastrophe was decades in the making and could have been avoided, Ing, National Director at the Green New Deal Network, said in an interview with

Ing noted how the rapid spread of the wildfires “was caused by dry vegetation and low humidity. Those are all functions of climate change. This isn’t disputable. This isn’t political. Climate pollution, corporate polluters that set a blanket of pollution in the air that is overheating our planet contributed — caused the conditions that led to this fire.”

A history of land grabs, water diversion

He also blamed long-time mismanagement of land water resources from Lahaina and Maui in general. “And Lahaina was actually a wetland,” he said. In a 2014 study, Wetland Loss in Hawai’i Since Human Settlement, researchers estimated 35 percent of coastal wetlands on Maui have been lost.

“The original ‘Big Five’ oligarchy in Hawaii, missionary families that took over our economy and government,…They’ve been grabbing land and diverting water away from this area for a very long time now, for generations,” Ing said. “But, you know, because they needed water for their corporate ventures, like golf courses and hotels and monocropping,” wetlands have been drained and native vegetation lost. “So the natural form of Lahaina would have never caught on fire. These disasters are anything but natural.”

Related: How climate and wildfires are linked

Ing noted wildfires and drought are nothing new to Maui. “So, growing up on this island, we saw maybe one or two fires, and they were very contained, when things got to this drought factor.” Wildfire destruction “has never been anything close” to what is happening now, he said.

Circling back to the climate, Ing was strongly critical of President Biden’s recent comment that his administration already has “practically declared” a climate emergency despite not formerly declaring one. “And as soon as I start thinking about that statement from President Biden, I just get so incensed,” he said. “This is a climate emergency. There’s no practical — “practically” — he declared it. You either believe it or not.”

The transition to renewable energy is affordable

Ing said both political parties are failing to address the issue properly. “And I think as bad as Republicans have been by denying climate, Democrats are just as culpable by not doing enough,” he said. “Scientists say that we need to be investing at least $1 trillion a year in the clean energy transition. We need to end and phase out, deny all new fossil fuel permits, and really empower the communities that build back ourselves democratically. That’s the solution for it.”

The richest 10 percent of the world’s population produce about half of greenhouse gas emissions. Historian Rutger Bregman, author of the book Utopia for Realists, notably berated billionaires gathered in Davos, Switzerland in 2019 for not paying their fair share of taxes.

There’s no escaping the heat on this planet

I write this as the National Weather Service has just issued an Excessive Heat Watch — a multi-day stretch of dangerously hot conditions — for a sizeable portion of western Washington state where I live. Despite the widespread deadly heat dome that has scorched much of the United States this summer, my little pocket of the Pacific Northwest has been spared. But this has been pure luck.

When I first moved here more than 20 years ago, the thought of needing an air conditioner was comical. Yet as years passed, I noticed summers getting hotter and hotter, and now I have a window air conditioner I need to use more frequently. This summer I’ve left it in the basement because we’ve been spared the heat dome, heat waves. But it’s just a lucky summer for us up here. As Ing said in his interview, stating the obvious, “We’re living the climate emergency.”

Related: Global scorching ahead of schedule. Well done, humanity.