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Maalaea fire prevention, erosion work funded by grant

Maui Nui Marine Resource Council awarded $300,000

A helicopter pilot carries a load of water to the Wednesday brush fire high in the West Maui Mountains above Maalaea. Parched conditions and whipping winds fueled the fast-moving blaze, which started high on the mountain and closed Honoapiilani Highway on the pali. The fire had burned 4,000 acres by nightfall. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The same week that a wildfire wreaked havoc on traffic passing through the pali, the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council announced they received a $300,000 two-year Resilient Communities Grant to manage fire fuel and forest reserve resiliency in the Pohakea watershed above Maalaea.

“It is extremely timely that we are announcing this grant today, as a wildfire rages near the windmills and the Lahaina pali trail,” said Christina Lizzi, executive director of the nonprofit Maui Nui Marine Resource Council on Wednesday. “In addition to the danger they pose to people, and the road closures they cause, wildfires in this area strip vegetation off steeply sloped land, creating prime conditions for soil erosion in heavy rain or strong winds. This ultimately leads to more sediment-laden runoff flowing into the ocean, which is harmful to coral reefs and marine wildlife.”

The grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Wells Fargo Foundation will be used to establish and improve fuel breaks in strategically placed corridors to mitigate the cycle of wildfire and to protect 3,414 acres of forest reserve in Maalaea, part of the Pohakea watershed.

According to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, wildfires are increasing in frequency, size and severity on every Hawaiian island and threaten property and access to several Maui communities, the council’s news release said.

On Wednesday and Thursday, a 4,600-acre wildfire started in Maalaea and burned over the pali, reaching Papalaua. The wildfire forced the closure of Honoapiilani Highway, the main corridor in and out of West Maui, and led to evacuations of Kaheawa Wind Power above Maalaea and a strip of homes makai of the highway near Maalaea Small Boat Harbor.

The council will engage more than 10 partner organizations and community volunteers to create fuel breaks and to plant fire-resistant plants in the Pohakea watershed.

“The project will improve Maui’s resilience by restoring and preserving the native habitats that mitigate the negative effects of forest fires,” the council said.

The grant also will benefit Maalaea Bay, into which the Pohakea watershed drains, said Lizzi. Sediment-laden runoff flows into the bay through ditches and culverts emptying into Maalaea Small Boat Harbor.

“Maalaea Bay is home to two popular beaches, a small-boat harbor, a popular surf break, coral reefs and an area where sea turtles feed,” said Lizzi. “Maui Nui Marine Resource Council is working to improve ocean water quality in this bay, through our work to prevent erosion in Pohakea watershed and also through a planned pilot project to utilize caged oysters to help remove pollutants in Maalaea harbor.”

While it may be “counterintuitive for people to look up-slope to improve water quality,” that is what the council is doing, said Anne Rillero, communications, community outreach and development manager for the council, whose main mission is to keep coral reefs healthy and ocean water clean. Fires in the Pohakea watershed create erosion and sedimentation of coral reefs, she said Monday.

“The source of water quality issues start uphill,” Rillero said.

The council grant was among 11 Resilient Communities Program grants awarded this year, totaling $2.9 million, out of a pool of 170 applicants. The grant also required at least a one-to-one match, said Rillero.

The match will be $430,478 for the council, said the news release. The matching funds are coming from the county; Maui Ocean Center; additional fund raising, including grants; and in-kind donations from volunteers, said Rillero.

So the council will have $730,478 to work with on the project, the news release said.

“This grant is significant because it represents money that will come into Maui County to pay local contractors to create firebreaks and help us reduce the impact of wildfires in this dry, windy area,” said Lizzi. “This grant will also help our community achieve greater resiliency in this time of drier weather and climate change.”

Rillero said that the work could begin late this year. The council hired a consultant who developed a stormwater management plan, which outlines specific steps to take to clean up the water in Maalaea Bay, she said.

For more information on the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, go to www.mauireefs.org.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.