Wildfires in Maui Destroy Cultural Heritage Sites, Raising Alarm Among Experts

Artnews_ Wildfires have destroyed historic sites, museums, homes, and other buildings in the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. At the time of publication, local fire departments had reported 55 deaths.

The wildfires spread quickly on August 8, with more than 271 structures impacted in the area, according to flyovers by the US civil air patrol and the Maui fire department. Strong winds in the region from a distant hurricane, dry air underlying drought conditions, as well as deforestation and the introduction of non-native, fire-prone grasses were cited by a Weather Channel meteorologist and a study for an increase in the region’s susceptibility to fire.

“The wildfires on Maui have ripped through the town of Lahaina with devastating consequences and we are immensely saddened by the loss of life, homes, and historical and cultural sites,” Jonathan Yukio Clark, director of the Schaefer International Gallery at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, told theArt Newspaper on August 10. “A number of cultural sites located in the town of Lahaina were destroyed in the fire, but it will take time to know the full impact and specifics.”

The Lahaina Restoration Foundation, which is responsible for 14 major historic structures in the historic town, has lost several of its sites to the fire.

These include the two-story Wo Hing Temple Museum, built in 1912 as a religious and social hall for the island’s Chinese immigrants, and a 150-year-old banyan tree.

An aerial photo taken on August 10 by theAFP showed the only the exterior envelope remained of the Old Lahaina Courthouse, which also housed the Lahaina Heritage Museum. The museum provided visitors with a comprehensive look at the history of the town, including its indigenous roots before colonization and its evolution through missionary efforts, as well as the effect of the whaling industry, plantations, and tourism.

The Baldwin House, which dates back to 1834 and widely believed to be the oldest home still standing on Maui, also burned down.

According to ABC News, other historic sites affected by the fires include the Waiola Church and Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, where several monarchs are buried, and the 122-year-old Pioneer Inn.

“Many homes, businesses and historic places have been damaged and destroyed,” Lahaina Restoration Foundation executive director Theo Morrison told theArt Newspaper in a statement. “We need to come together now to make sure our town recovers from this.” The foundation has launched a campaign to raise funds for Lahaina’s recovery effort.

Lahaina’s Front Street, where the Wo Hing Temple Museum once stood, was a major tourist attraction before it was also destroyed in the wildfire. The Na ‘Aikane o Maui Cultural Center, which hosted events for artists and allowed visitors to see Polynesian artifacts and local historical documents, was also located on Front Street.

“This has been a terrible event for Maui and we are all grieving the loss of life and the destruction of the beautiful historic town of Lahaina,” Maika Pollack, the director and chief curator at University of Hawaii’s John Young Museum of Art, told theArt Newspaper. “It’s a town of great importance to the cultural history of Hawaii.”

On August 10, President Joe Biden declared the situation a major disaster, opening up the availability of federal aid to residents in Maui County. The governor’s office has issued a state of emergency until August 31 and discouraged nonessential air travel to Maui.

“This proclamation is to discourage travel to the affected areas so we can prioritize our scarce resources for Maui residents who desperately need assistance,” Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke said in a press statement.