Area of the fire , image courtesy KIRC

A brush fire on Kaho‘olawe burned for more than a week, scorching roughly a third of the island before fizzling out Monday, March 2, said a spokesperson from the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission. KIRC, the entity “responsible for the restoration and sustainable management of the island until it can be transferred to a Native Hawaiian entity to manage,” first received reports of the fire on Feb. 22, but was unable to respond to the threat, as the Maui Fire Department could not battle the blaze from air or the ground due to safety concerns related to the possible presence of unexploded ordnance. The result was an uncontrolled burn that persisted until days of rain successfully dampened the fire’s spread.

“Mahalo to everyone for their support, which has come in the form of pule, intention, messages, and donations,” said a KIRC spokesperson Monday. In addition to damage to the natural landscape, KIRC reported that it “lost several buildings, water catchment tanks, all-terrain vehicles, water crafts, irrigation supplies, restoration equipment and planting materials to the fire.” The organization is accepting donations to assist with recovering losses from the fire (visit for more information).

For the last 20 years, KIRC and its supporters and volunteers have participated in an effort to restore the watershed of the island, which was demolished by the US Navy from the 1950s to ‘70s, when the island – traditionally a sacred place to Native Hawaiians – was used as a bombing range. Today, unescorted access to about 25 percent of the island remains unsafe due to the possibility of unexploded ordnance, KIRC states on its website, while only 10 percent of the island’s area has been cleared of ordnance to a depth of four feet.

With the news of successful volunteer trips, trolling schedules, native plant recovery, and sediment runoff management dominating the recent press regarding the island, the uncontrolled fire is a stark reminder of the wounds still born by the land after decades of US militarism and abuse. It is a reminder of the colonial damage inflicted carelessly on sacred places, which persists as trauma even after the battle is seemingly won.

The bombing of Kaho‘olawe ceased in the late 1970s because of the efforts of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, a grassroots organization that led protests, filed federal suit against the Navy’s bombing of Kaho‘olawe, and occupied the island. One of the organization’s leaders, Walter Ritte, remains an outspoken proponent of Aloha ‘Aina. I reached out to Ritte, who recently launched a campaign to represent House District 13 (which includes Moloka‘i, Lana‘i, Pa‘ia, Kaho‘olawe, Ha‘iku, and Hana, a seat currently held by Rep. Lynn DeCoite) for his comment. As someone who risked his life for Kaho‘olawe, I wanted to know his perspective of the island’s lasting trauma and healing.

Walter Ritte. Photo by Mickey Pauole

Speaking in a calm rasp while roosters crowed in the background, Ritte (affectionately known as “Uncle Walter” by his campaign manager) said the fire “kind of reminded me of why we started the whole fight over Kaho‘olawe in the first place. We used to see fires at night because of the bombs, and even during the day. So [the fire] brought back a lot of memories.

“It also told us that there is a huge element of danger on that island, when the firemen cannot even go there or the helicopters cannot even fly over it. There’s a false sense of safety that exists. So this brought out the fact that this is a very dangerous island.”

Indeed, while restoration efforts go strong, it has been said that the healing of the land will take generations, despite the bombing taking place over a relatively short couple of decades. Ritte recalled that his effort with PKO was initially focused on a simple mission: Stop the bombing. After that, his perspective differed from others in the movement.

“My personal position was that that island was so misused that the only one that’s gonna clean it up is gonna be nature,” he said. “So my commitment was to leave that island alone for the next 100 years and watch the powers of nature in action. But I got voted out. People wanted to spend $400 million on it, they wanted more buildings, roads, water catchment, all those kinds of things, which in everybody’s mind was because they wanted to help Kaho‘olawe.”

“But I didn’t think man had the wherewithal, no matter how much money they brought in, to do a better job than nature… I couldn’t understand why we needed a walk-in chillbox, and freezers, and air-conditioned rooms, and whole baseyards. It reminded me of walking down to Kaka‘ako on O‘ahu with all the dead equipment and machinery. I thought that was too much, too soon for that island. But it was all justified so that they could replant the hardpan, and you cannot argue with that.”

Because of his position, Ritte moved on to other causes, but the lessons of Kaho‘olawe stuck with him. 

“I got involved in the city and what I saw on O‘ahu was the same thing that was happening to Kaho‘olawe – except it wasn’t in-your-face bombing and fires, it was like a slow, cancerous kind of death. And so I started figuring out how to slow that one down, and I got involved in all kinds of things to push Aloha ‘Aina, which we felt saved Kaho‘olawe. And maybe Aloha ‘Aina can save the rest of the islands.”

This message and commitment to Aloha ‘Aina is likely to be a theme during Ritte’s campaign for House.

“I really am a strong believer in nature,” Ritte told me. “On the rest of the islands, what I feel is that [people] are killing the life of the land. They’re extracting, extracting, extracting for profit until the life of the land is gone. And then they’ll move someplace else. That kind of economy is not gonna last long in the middle of the Pacific.”

“Kaho‘olawe was the example,” he said. “The slow, cancerous growth is harder to see. It’s gonna take a whole generation to say, ‘Aw, shit, what have we done?’ Look, it took 40 years or so to kill [Kaho‘olawe] or bring it near death, and it’s happening to all the islands. What saved it was just the love of the land – it was Aloha ‘Aina.”

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