Could whacking some trees cut fire risk and help Maui in other ways?

While arborists warn about excessive felling of trees, Hawaii is thick with non-native species that could be thinned to restore the land

Cody Clark, an arborist and owner of ClimbingHI, a Maui-based tree care service, swings from one tree to another as he and his team work to remove fallen and problematic trees near the Maui Bird Conservation Center. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

MAKAWAO, Hawaii — Wielding a small chain saw, Cody Clark hung from a towering pine tree. Just two metal spikes and some ropes kept him suspended more than 40 feet above the forest floor.

A high-pitched buzzing, similar to a dentist’s drill, filled the air as he carefully sawed at a section of the trunk. Within seconds, the top of the tree started to tilt. Giving way with two loud cracks, clumps of green needles rained down as the leafy mass plummeted to the ground with a crash.

Like other parts of Hawaii, Maui is dotted with dense clusters of pine trees — one of many nonnative plants and grasses that flourish in the tropical climate. In the aftermath of the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, stoked by high winds that downed trees and power lines, numerous Maui residents have enlisted arborists such as Clark to help prevent trees from falling on their homes, or potentially becoming fuel for future blazes.

“A lot of it’s just kind of fear — fear and clean up,” said Clark, who owns ClimbingHI, a tree care company in Maui that has received dozens of calls following the powerful winds and fires earlier this month.

Jake Kane, another local arborist who runs Kane’s Legacy Tree Services, said he has also fielded similar inquiries. People, he said, are now likely “looking at their properties and just wondering what will happen if we have a big storm, what will happen if we have a fire?”

But rushing to clear properties of all foliage, which is also often costly, isn’t the answer. Some experts say fire protection should be balanced with the need to protect Hawaii’s native flora, and even give it a boost by allowing such plants to grow tall amid the region’s thickets of invasive foliage. Thoughtfully planted and well-maintained greenery can be difficult to ignite, they said, and sometimes may even help contain fires and protect structures.

“Unfortunately, I think the pendulum is going to swing and people are going to start cutting down more trees than they need to,” Kane said.

‘We realized how vulnerable we are’

Godwin and Rebecca Pelissero always knew that some of the lofty trees on their sprawling seven-acre property just off Haleakala Highway, also known as Crater Road, could fall on their home. But on Aug. 8, as the longtime Maui residents watched flames tear through a nearby part of their neighborhood in Kula, the threat became all too real.

“Once we saw the fire, the worries about a tree falling on the house sort of went away and we realized how vulnerable we are,” Godwin Pelissero said.

Although the flames never reached their home, the high winds uprooted massive trees nearby and caused a large juniper branch to fall into a power line that runs above a portion of their land. It had happened before, and the Pelisseros knew it could happen again.

So, they called Clark’s company and within days a crew was on-site, cleaning up downed trees and removing others that could pose dangers.

Still, the Pelisseros, who are planning to replant with some native trees, said they have some lingering questions.

“Do we want to eliminate absolutely everything to be fire safe or do we just keep rolling the dice and hope it doesn’t happen?” Godwin Pelissero said. “But I mean I can’t see cutting down all our trees.”

The case for keeping trees

Removing all foliage out of fear it could ignite is not the solution, said Pat Durland, a wildfire mitigation specialist and member of the board of directors of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.

“A lot of people believe that every bush is going to burst into flames and that’s not necessarily the case,” Durland said. “If you have a bush that is off the ground and is green and in good shape, it’s going to be difficult to ignite. And it may shade the radiant heat from your home.”

Plants that survive fire, especially intense blazes, demonstrate that they are resistant to ignition, he said.

“Those were the winners,” he said. “Please leave them there if they’re of any value at all.”

As for Clark and his chain saw acrobatics, the Maui arborist had been tasked with removing pines that were growing in the dense forest surrounding the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Makawao. Many trees all around the property had recently been marked with a red slash of paint signifying that they needed to be removed for the safety of the facility’s workers and its birds, some of the world’s rarest.

Jennifer Pribble, who oversees operations at the conservation center, said she called Clark’s company to remove some trees because she feared the large pines could fall onto aviaries holding rare birds or endanger staff members.

While the center was threatened by one reported fire early in the morning on Aug. 8 that Pribble and her staff rushed to keep at bay, their focus has since been on keeping trees further away from the center’s buildings.

“Not necessarily for the fire control, but just for safety,” she said.

Pribble, who kept a close watch on the fire as it burned, said she noticed that the shady forest seemed to help contain the flames.

“As soon as it got out of the forest, that’s when it burned a lot faster,” Pribble said. She added that the center has plans to replant with three species of native trees, but keep them away from structures.

“Absolutely, trees that are planted close to buildings are a fire risk,” she said.

Controlling vegetation and fire risk

Both in Hawaii and elsewhere, managing vegetation is a critical part of protecting homes and other buildings from wildfires, Durland said. Trees and shrubs could pose risks if they are over-mature, growing close to a structure and full of dead limbs and leaves.

To better safeguard houses from wildfires, the National Fire Protection Association encourages people to first focus on prepping their houses before moving onto landscaping, which includes removing any flammable materials, such as plants and leaves, away from exterior walls.

“We want to go outside to make sure that nothing in that zero to five-foot zone where the embers are going to be landing is going to ignite and put flames against the house,” Durland said. “Flames against the structure is a recipe for destruction.”

It’s also important to consider landscaping parts of the property further away from structures, according to the NFPA, which provides detailed guidelines online for spacing and maintaining trees based on their distance from homes.

But in places such as Hawaii, where trees and other types of plants are known to thrive and grow quickly, keeping the vegetation in check can feel like a Sisyphean task.

“It’s really hard to have the resources to battle back the jungle,” said Clark, the local arborist, while walking down a pine-shaded dirt path at the bird sanctuary on a cool August morning two weeks after the wildfire.

Soon, he was high up in those very same trees. As the top of one pine toppled to the ground, Clark reattached his chain saw to his side, lowered himself a few feet, and then swung from ropes to another tree nearby that had also been marked for removal.

For a moment the forest was quiet. Then, the telltale buzz of the saw started up again.

Brianna Sacks contributed to this report.

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