During Vice President Kamala Harris’s second visit to Seattle since taking office, she made an attempt to attribute the deadly wildfires in Hawaii to climate change. However, experts in the environmental field have pointed out that poor state land management practices might be a more significant factor in the wildfires’ severity.
Harris’s visit to Seattle coincided with the one-year anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act’s signing into law. She used the occasion to highlight the Biden administration’s commitment to investing nearly $1 trillion in building a clean energy economy. The legislation had passed with Harris’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
Joined by Democrat Governor Jay Inslee, Senator Maria Cantwell, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, Harris emphasized the climate crisis’s global impact. She pointed out the deadly heat waves and devastating wildfires experienced in Washington state and other parts of the country. Harris also expressed condolences for the victims of the wildfires in Maui, acknowledging the loss of lives, homes, and sacred cultural sites in the native Hawaiian community.
However, environmental experts challenge the notion that climate change alone is responsible for the extent of the wildfires. Clay Trauernicht, a professor and environmental management expert at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, highlighted the role of unmanaged nonnative grasslands resulting from decades of declining agriculture. These grasslands have increased the sensitivity of the landscape to fire-prone conditions.
Trauernicht suggested that proper support, planning, and resources for fuel reduction projects and land use management could mitigate wildfire risks. Other experts, like Jim Steele from San Francisco State University and Professor Peter Vitousek from Stanford University, pointed out the invasion of fire-prone grasses and human-caused ignitions as contributing factors.
The Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization noted that over 98 percent of wildfires in the state are human-caused, primarily due to dry brush and human activity. Herman Andaya, the Administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, recently resigned after facing criticism for not activating warning sirens as the wildfire approached Lahaina, resulting in significant destruction.
Utility provider Hawaii Electric has faced scrutiny for its role in the fires, as its power lines are suspected of sparking the blaze. In 2019, the company pledged to address wildfire risk by updating its infrastructure, but prioritized converting to renewable energy.
Despite the complexities of the situation, Harris used her visit to engage with high school graduates impacted by the Inflation Reduction Act and attended a campaign fundraising event. Critics argue that while addressing climate change is important, acknowledging land management issues could lead to more effective strategies for preventing and managing wildfires.