Rising From the Ashes: How Restoring Maui’s Watersheds Can Help Avert Future Wildfires

For locals in the historic town of Lahaina, Tuesday, August 8th began with fierce winds and water spouts barreling down the West Maui coastline – and ended with a catastrophic wildfire that consumed the entire town, and captured the attention of the world.

Fueled by weather from a powerful Category 4 Hurricane as it passed South of Maui, the seeds of this wildfire's origin can be traced back to the convergence of climate extremes, recent intensified drought conditions, and an unprecedented level of non-native invasive plant growth – creating the ideal conditions for massive fires to thrive. 

Our hearts and prayers go out to all those affected by this tragedy, and for all the lives lost. The scale of this disaster is truly staggering at all levels ( personal, property, community, cultural, historical, etc.) and the recovery process will be measured in years, not months.

We’ve been in close contact with our own family, friends, and partners since the morning the fires started, and our staff has been working to support and highlight their efforts to provide immediate relief to their local community members. We encourage everyone to help donate to support the ongoing efforts being made at the direct local level, including the work of ambassador Zane Schweitzer, one of Maui’s most decorated Watermen, and Eddy Garcia who is a SeaTrees Project Partner restoring native watershed in Launiupoko just south of Lāhainā. 

And while the Lahaina community must be given the proper time to grieve and process their new reality on the ground, the opportunity to learn from this tragedy quickly and to help enable solutions that can benefit everyone affected by climate change-fueled disasters will be critical to the longer term recovery efforts. These events offer insight into the intricate relationship between climate change and ecological dynamics, which increasingly drive social and economic impacts and failures in our systems. However, there is still hope to avert future disasters and reverse climate change.

Years of agricultural shifts on Maui and other islands have seen native vegetation replaced by flammable non-native grasses that thrive after small fires. This creates a continuous cycle of invasive grass growth and wildfires, creating a dire situation where the invasive species dominate over native ones, making wildfires even more frequent and destructive. This reduces resilience in the system so that extreme events are more likely to occur, as we have just witnessed.

A core aspect of our SeaTrees project in partnership with Regenerative Education Centers is the removal of invasive, non-native species and preparing the soil for the introduction of native plants. This process places significant emphasis on fostering regenerative agriculture practices. A few weeks prior to the fires, land on the north-west site of the REC Farm was cleared to make way for the next round of SeaTrees planting.

Remarkably, this cleared area became a crucial element in stopping the spread of the encroaching fires. As the flames surged down the coast, the cleared area of land acted as a firebreak, containing the flames and preventing them from continuing down the coast.

Just past the ashes, a beacon of resilience is starting to emerge. With the fire path halted, REC’s nearby farm at Olowalu is now gearing up to become a hub for critical activities, from coordinating communications to distributing supplies, and even providing temporary shelter for those uprooted by the fires. Going forward, the farm will continue to provide shelter and support – and a place to plant many more Hawaiian SeaTrees in the future.

Stay tuned for updates as we have team members who have just arrived on site to help in any way they can, document the incredible efforts of REC and the local community volunteers, and assess what else needs to be done in this long road to recovery. 

REC has just launched the Maui Wildfire Recovery Program – a comprehensive initiative dedicated to recovery efforts for the Lāhainā Maui Fire and will support both the immediate and long-term needs of those affected. 

Donate today to support the Lāhainā community's recovery and the SeaTrees project's ongoing mission of regeneration.