The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Lahaina, Maui:
Wildfire Tragedy Created by Capitalist Drive for Profit

Aug 21, 2023

Lahaina, Maui looks like a bombed-out warzone after the devastating wildfire hit on August 8. Nothing is left of the bustling town of 13,000 people but ash and cinder. Over a hundred are dead, with more bodies discovered every day. Thousands have been left homeless.

It was the worst fire disaster in the U.S. in over a hundred years. And it should never have happened.

Certainly, official reports commissioned by the local government several years before warned that wildfire conditions had gotten increasingly more dangerous. Maui is in the grip of a long drought. Plants that can burn explosively cover huge swaths of grasslands. Winds from increasingly more powerful storms spread fires ever more quickly.

And the reports also recommended how to prevent such a tragedy: secure the electric grid, cut back on all the flammable plants, provide early warning systems, etc. This was obvious. It didn’t take experts to figure it out. But nothing was ever done to address those dangers. Because the safety and well-being of the population and the land were never the top priority of the big capitalists, or the top government officials who serve their interests. No, for them, profits of the big landowners, resorts and electric utility always came first.

While the electric utility, Hawaiian Electric, steadily increased its profits and dividends to its largest shareholders over the last years, it did nothing to make its old decrepit electric grid any safer. So, when a hurricane, hundreds of miles away, spawned 70 mile an hour winds in Maui, live power lines crashed to the ground, sparking one fire after the other. Downed power lines also forced officials to close one of the only escape routes out of Lahaina. Many were in their cars, stuck in traffic, trying to get out, when the fires overcame them.

At the same time, a few big companies that own most of the land did nothing to cut back on the overgrown, highly flammable grasses that grow all over Maui. These are the same companies that owned the big sugar and pineapple plantations that dominated the Maui economy during the previous century. After these companies tore out the plantations, they replaced them with resorts, golf courses and retail developments aimed at tourists and the very rich looking to build their vacation homes. On much of their land, which remained undeveloped, the big landowners allowed vast expanses of grasses to grow that become explosive tinder during the dry summer months. To the big landowners, it was an unnecessary expense that cut into their profits to either replace these grasses with more fire-resistant vegetation, or even just cut them back. Those grasses provided the fuel for the fires that were whipped up by high winds. The fires spread so quickly, it was impossible to outrun them.

The top government officials showed the same disregard for the safety of the population as the big companies. They never even bothered to upgrade the early warning system. So, the warning sirens never sounded, leaving most people unaware of the fire danger. The staff at some of the big hotels were so uninformed of what was going on, they continued to check in new guests, even as others were fleeing for their lives.

Today, thousands of survivors of the fires are living in shelters, with nowhere to go. Others left the island in order to stay with friends or relatives. Before the fire, big parts of the working population were already living on the edge, having to cope with prices that are 13% higher than on the mainland, as well as a terrible housing shortage. Only a month before, Governor Josh Green said the state of Hawaii has the highest housing and rental prices in the country.

Today, Biden and other top officials reassure the thousands of homeless families that they will be protected and taken care of. Words, just words. History proves that after all past disasters, capitalists take advantage of people’s vulnerability and desperation to increase their holdings on the cheap and swallow up most of the disaster relief to rebuild, making their resorts and developments bigger and more opulent, leaving the workers in the dust.

No, the class war of the capitalists against the workers is not suspended during disasters. The capitalists don’t suddenly feel a sense of compassion and love for all those who do the work and make everything run for them. On the contrary, the capitalist drive to accumulate ever more wealth at the expense of the working class goes into high gear. It’s why the motto of big capitalists is: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

It’s one more reason why the working class has no other choice but to organize itself independently in order to get rid of this rotten system.