Water on the Fire

11/01/2023
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    Keʻeaumoku Kapu poses for photos on his taro farm near Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP/Jae C. Hong)
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    The Maui fire devastated Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP/Jae C. Hong)
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    Burned buildings in Lahaina (AP/Jae C. Hong)
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    Keʻeaumoku Kapu depends on a stream to water his crops. (AP/Jae C. Hong)
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    An American Red Cross volunteer distributes water in Kula, Hawaii. The fire damaged water pipes, leaving clean drinking water more scarce. (AP/Mengshin Lin)
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Keʻeaumoku Kapu farms taro patches above Lahaina, Hawaii. A stream feeds the crops on his ancestral land. When fires surged toward his hometown last summer, he fled. Thankfully, the fire didn’t reach his mountain home. Many others didn’t fare so well.

The deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century struck Maui, Hawaii, in August. A land developer nearby asked state officials for permission to use stream water to fight the blazes. But Native Hawaiians objected. To them, stream water is sacred.

Sacred means holy or set apart. Native Hawaiians have good reason for valuing their freshwater streams. As islanders, they’re surrounded by water . . . but not drinkable water. Not water useful for irrigating farms. In ancient Hawaii, communities were divided so that a stream ran through each one. Hawaiians built ditches that carried this precious water to taro, banana, breadfruit, and other crops. Freshwater marine creatures lived in the streams, providing Hawaiians with food. The flowing streams nourished native animals and plants too.

Owners at West Maui Land Company, Inc., eventually got approval to use stream water in firefighting. But they say the go-ahead came too late. The fire killed at least 97 people.

The dispute over water access during the blaze sparked new tension in an old fight. Hawaiians have fought to protect their water since the mid-1800s. They protested when needed stream water was diverted to feed lush green lawns and swimming pools. Lacking water, surrounding lands sprouted overgrown brown brush and invasive grass.

Should people use “sacred” water to put out a fire? This question might remind you of one Jesus asked: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (Luke 14:3) He asks this of the Pharisees, who accuse Him of wrongdoing for making a sick man whole. The Pharisees were missing something big: God’s grace is present when we help others and push back calamity. That’s sacred.

A representative from the land developer says, “All we have asked is for the ability to make water available for fire prevention and suppression, to help people while we recover and to rebuild what we have lost.”

Native Hawaiian farmers and others say the stream water would not have made a difference in the fires. The streams don’t supply Maui County’s fire hydrants. Their waters might have proved useful in firefighting helicopters, but high winds grounded the helicopters that day. They say the developer’s fire claims are just a ruse to gain power over water. “They’ll do anything to get it,” Kapu says of the land developers.

Why? People must learn to share water and other resources rightly, especially in extreme circumstances like wildfires.

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