What Hawaiians Lost in the Fire
An interview with Kaniela Ing, the national director of the Green New Deal Network and a seventh-generation Indigenous Hawaiian
Kaniela Ing was looking for his car.
The national director of the Green New Deal Network and a seventh-generation Indigenous Hawaiian who currently lives in Oahu, Ing had just touched down in Maui — and was navigating the rental car lot — when he took my call on Thursday afternoon. “It’ll be quiet,” he considerately assured me as he navigated the garage, moving upstream from the chaotic flow of tourists and evacuees trying to leave the island, and en route to see his family, friends, and the unthinkable wildfire devastation of Lahaina, a community he loves.
Our conversation touched on the dizzying speed of the destruction, outsider misconceptions about Maui, the colonialist mismanagement of the land, and the urgency of the climate crisis, as well as the loss of Lahaina, the physical town, and the resilience of Lahaina, the community. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me — I know you’re busy with media appearances today while also grieving the devastation of a place and a community you love. Have you heard from your family and friends? Are they okay?
My immediate family is. I texted a few of my friends from high school who are now firefighters. I haven’t heard back so, you know, they’re probably busy saving people and searching for loved ones and doing the heroic work.
Growing up in Maui, were wildfires ever something you worried about?
No. I mean, I vaguely remember once in a while there’d be a small fire up on the mountain. And then there was, like, a slightly bigger one. So it’s definitely a trajectory. But never anything remotely close to this. It’s not like we live in Canada. It’s … it’s really shocking.
I’ve been reading today about how Lahaina was a historic and cultural heart of the islands even before it became the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1802. What does the Indigenous Hawaiian community lose when there is a fire like this?
Lahaina has been characterized by many as a tourist destination and nothing much more, but it was and continues to be at the heart of a lot of our culture here in Hawaii. Even today, some of our best cultural practitioners and musicians live in Lahaina, sometimes on the same land and home that their families have been living on since the 1800s. Even before that.
So Front Street, yes, in some ways, it’s become like a Waikiki Time Square sort of area that locals avoid. On the other hand, the people that actually live on or adjacent to that street are some of the most rooted Native Hawaiians in the world.
Yeah, my next question was about the misconception of Maui as just a tourist spot. I saw you boosted a tweet about a large unhoused population that lives in the area impacted by the fires. Can you speak to the disproportionate impacts of climate change that we’re seeing?
The response has been mixed. It’s really heartening to see community come together and local businesses taking supply drop-offs and delivering it. If anything, emergency institutions are overwhelmed by the volume of volunteers that are reaching out to help. On the other hand, it appears that in some ways the tourists were prioritized in some of the response. Or at least this is some of the feedback I’m hearing on the ground, where their safeties seemed to come first when it came to the more institutional players like the hotels and government. But we are seeing a rapid deployment of government services and large nonprofits now directed at local residents.
It’s just — I mean, it’ll unfold this quickly. I think that’s what people don’t understand about climate change and sea level rise. For example, sea level rise, it just makes people think that the water is slowly going up and the same for global warming: the temperature is just going to get a little bit warmer every year. But no, sea level rise is punctuated by massive tsunamis and hurricanes. And the same for global temperatures; these hurricane-force winds are just going to become more and more common. The dry grass and the low humidity are going to make these disasters become the norm unless we take some really drastic action now for a clean-energy transition. And the people that are hit first tend to be Indigenous folks, Black folks, especially if you’re in a community that lacks certain infrastructure, like a low-income community — even more so for the unsheltered.
You’ve been speaking out strongly on social media about the political and business powers that are sitting by as climate change unfolds. So I wanted to ask if there was anyone or anything you would point a finger at when it comes to the fires in Maui?
There are multiple. It’s a confluence of factors. The official line by the National Weather Service is [that the fires were caused by a downed] powerline caused by hurricane-force winds, worsened by dry vegetation and low humidity. But what caused that is, of course, corporations that let loose a blanket of pollution that’s overheating our planet.
In addition, there’s real mismanagement of land and water, where corporations that stem from the original Big Five oligarchy in Hawaii — which is the first five missionary families who control our government, rich, white, right-wing families. They persist today in the form of various corporations. And throughout my life, some of these companies have put agriculture mono-crops on our islands, knowing that it’s not profitable or sustainable, to hold the land for speculative purposes. And once the business went under — the sugarcane biz went under — they didn’t have a plan for the workers and they pit the union against the community activists that didn’t like cane burning, right? So those are the people that have controlled our island for a long time.
And in fact, we want to make sure that as we recover, once the direct relief efforts are done, the cameras have left — we understand that recovery will take years. And as that recovery unfolds, we want to make sure that the people, the communities, are actually empowered to rebuild themselves, that we don’t open the door for disaster capitalists. Unfortunately, the institutions best poised to distribute direct aid are also the most likely to enable disaster capitalists to exploit this tragedy. They’re actively raising millions and once the spotlight moves from our island, what’s to come of those monies and who’s really going to benefit? Those are questions that I think we need to be really proactive about answering on our own as community organizers.
And maybe in this opportunity — like, we all understand that we’re going to have to be lobbying for additional FEMA funds, federal funds, state and local funds. We want to make sure that the people, the forces that contributed to this problem in the first place, are pushed out of power for a more community, ground-up sort of infrastructure. So there’s a lot of mutual aid and power building that needs to happen immediately.
In the Western U.S., there’s been a push to incorporate Indigenous knowledge about wildfire management into state and federal stewardship practices. My understanding is that Hawaii’s natural ecosystem doesn’t have the same wildfire cycles as the continental U.S., but is there a better way forward here? What do you think needs to be done?
I think the Smokey the Bear narrative of just stopping fires unnaturally is something that we’re learning isn’t necessarily the right way to go. And that the light burns, planned sort of burns that native folks have initiated — First Nations in Canada — have been much more productive. And rather than building cities wherever we want and trying to keep nature out, we need to understand our role in the broader ecosystem if we want to survive. Like, this isn’t a matter of environmentalism. It’s for our own survival. This disaster is not natural. And I’m tired of people saying that it’s natural. It could have been prevented.
For example, Lahaina is known for its native practices. When I was the chair of Ocean and Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs in the state legislature, I would go to Lahaina committee members to check in every time, like, NOAA was trying to designate a coral as endangered. They’d be like, No, actually, that “endangered” coral is invasive in this one area so what we’ve been doing for 200 years is moving it into the area next to us — which is illegal under normal rules. But these kupuna, they knew much, much better than these federal regulators.
To me, when I think about Lahaina, it’s not gone, right? The town is gone. But Lahaina is these people and their way of being and the actual place, and that’s still strong.
What was the other part of the question?
Oh — what do you think we need to do now?
Yeah, yeah. I think the narrative right now needs to be controlled by members of the community and people who are rooted and understand the broader history of Hawaii. That’s why I love these calls and talking to people like you. But, like … whenever I stop texting and frantically calling, I start crying.
This is so heavy. At least 36 people died. And I do this shit for a living. I do this work for a living and you see the disaster and you help — but then to actually see it come in your own community. It's … I just … I just hope people actually envision that, like, your kid’s school, your church, the grocery store you shop at are just gone, tomorrow. Not 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line from climate change. But tomorrow. That’s where we’re at in terms of urgency. So what needs to happen moving forward is people need to recognize that urgency, and act accordingly. President Biden needs to declare a climate emergency. Congress needs to invest at least a trillion a year, multiple Inflation Reduction Acts, every year, and accelerate the clean energy transition, and do it in a way where the native people that actually are the keepers of his knowledge are leading the way.
If our readers walk away from this interview understanding one thing, what do you want that to be?
Lahaina used to be wetlands. It was known for the plethora of water around Mokuʻula, Mokuhinia. Boats would literally circulate Waiola Church years ago. So the fires were never … it’s bizarre that it’s even happening in this area. And it’s only a result of the theft: the water theft, the diversions, the irrigations that big business set up — golf courses, sugar cane, pineapple, hotels — they took away that natural protective essence of Lahaina.
These disasters are preventable. It’s not too late. We still have a small window. Right now, we’re still looking at 3% or 4% warming, which is catastrophic, and we might not hit the 1.5-degree goal that the Paris Accord and the UN says we need to do, but every fraction of a percent from now on will matter. It will mean fewer people dying. And we need to do everything we can, and that work isn’t always exciting. It can be phone-banking, door-knocking, writing op-eds. It’s not glamorous, but it’s necessary — more necessary than whatever your day job is.