Hawaiian Fires: When Natural Disasters Strike, How is History Preserved?

By Shirleon Sharron, HAI Archivist

On August 8, 2023, Hurricane Dora passed by Hawaii. In a historic event, the hurricane didn’t make landfall, however Category 4 winds could be felt over most of the islands. It was also the longest-lasting Cat4 hurricane on record in the Pacific Ocean. Hurricane Dora, known as a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean, started its journey on July 31, 2023 as a tropical depression. By August 1, 2023 it intensified into a hurricane and crossed the International Dateline, traveling nearly 5,000 miles.

Sadly, in another historic event – it caused one of the worst fires the U.S. has seen in the last one hundred years. As of now, the cause of the fire is undetermined, but there are thoughts that the nonnative plants that are so prevalent across the island may have had a hand in the spread of the flames. The fires were completely devastating. The destruction felt by the island is tremendous not only through the loss of homes and history but through the tragic loss of 114 people, though officials are saying it could rise to 1000.

The hardest hit was Lahaina, where over 2,000 acres burned, the fires traveling a mile every minute.

Aerial photo of Lahaina retrieved from https://lahainarestoration.org/

Qualified as a National Historic Landmark since 1962, the town is rich in its century’s old historic sites, like its precious banyan tree: the oldest banyan tree on the Hawaiian Islands. Lahaina was once the capitol of the Hawaiian kingdom, home to its royalty. It was also frequented by missionaries and whaling ships.

Lahaina's banyan tree providing shade from the sun in January 2016

Lahaina’s banyan tree providing shade from the sun in January 2016 (anouchka via Getty Images)

An aerial image of the banyan tree taken on August 10, 2023

An aerial image of the banyan tree taken on August 10, 2023 (Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

The tree was imported from India in 1873 in front of the courthouse. It’s one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. Sixty feet tall and stretching an entire city block, the tree is majestic in its expanse. Currently, crews are working tirelessly to save the tree by doing a process called aeration where they dig holes around the tree to allow air and water to give nutrients to the tree.

Sadly, the banyan tree is not the only historic landmark that has been lost to the terrible fire. A home built in the 1830s, possibly one of the oldest in Maui, was completely destroyed. The Baldwin Home Museum was once the home of medical missionary, Rev. Dwight Baldwin and his family. It was restored to its original designs, filled with old photographs and donated furniture. A church established by Queen Keōpūolani in 1823 just celebrated its 200th anniversary in May. Waiola Church worships in both English and Hawaiian and its cemetery holds many early members of the Hawaiian monarchy. According to their website, their building doesn’t seem to have been touched by the fires, but many of their congregation and surrounding community were hit devastatingly hard.

It almost seems too much to think about what can be done to save a vibrant community. Already there are links in many of the sources used here where donations can be made to help those affected by the fire. But historical monuments like the banyan tree – though there are efforts to save it, what else can be done except to wait, holding your breath to see if the tree sprouts to life again? Luckily, it seems that Maui has an amazing group of preservationists who are determined to save their history and restore it again to keep their memories alive. The executive director of Lahaina Restoration Foundation is grateful that there was an effort to complete an extensive digitization project for the museum. This means that even if the physical artifact is unable to be rescued and/or restored, there is a copy somewhere living on as a photograph that can be viewed by many all around the world.

To end on a hopeful note, as of August 20, 2023, reports were being made that there is still life in the century-old banyan tree. The Maui County arborist committee reported seeing tissue still alive under the thin bark of the tree. There are daily waterings of the tree provided by water trucks, as well as a two-inch layer of compost. It will take time – four to six months, possibly – to see if the tree will come back, but the people are optimistic. 

Cover image:

Left: Old Lahaina Courthouse before the fire. Right: This aerial photo shows destroyed Old Courthouse in Lahaina.

Sébastien Vuagnat/AFP via Getty Images

A Strategic Guide for Digital Exhibit Creation Ebook - Download Now!
author avatar
Stephanie Webster

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three + nineteen =