Kaho’olawe fire burns nearly 9,000 acres, Walter Ritte recalls his first involvement in the fight against Kaho’olawe

Fire zone, image courtesy of KIRC

A brush fire on Kaho’olawe burned for more than a week, scorching about a third of the island before going out on Monday March 2, a spokesperson for the Island Reserve Commission said. of Kaho’olawe. KIRC, the entity “responsible for the restoration and sustainable management of the island until it can be transferred to an indigenous Hawaiian entity to manage it”, first received reports of the fire. on February 22, but was unable to respond to the threat as the Maui Fire Department was unable to fight the blaze from the air or from the ground due to safety concerns related to the possible presence of unexploded ordnance. The result was an uncontrolled burn that persisted until rainy days succeeded in reducing the spread of the fire.

“Mahalo to all for their support, which has manifested itself in the form of money, intention, messages and donations,” a KIRC spokesperson said on Monday. In addition to the damage to the natural landscape, KIRC reported that it “lost several buildings, water catchment tanks, all-terrain vehicles, water boats, irrigation supplies, restoration equipment and water. plant material due to fire ”. The organization is accepting donations to help recover losses caused by the fire (visit Kahoolawe.hawaii.gov for more information).

For the past 20 years, KIRC and its supporters and volunteers have participated in an effort to restore the island’s watershed, which was demolished by the U.S. Navy from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the island – traditionally a sacred place for native Hawaiians – was used as a shooting range. Today, unescorted access to around 25% of the island remains unsafe due to the possibility of unexploded ordnance, KIRC says on its website, while only 10% of the island’s area has was cleared of ammunition to a depth of four feet.

With news of successful volunteer trips, trolling schedules, recovery of native plants, and management of sediment runoff dominating recent press regarding the island, the out-of-control fire is a stark reminder of injuries. still born from the earth after decades of American militarism and abuse. It’s a reminder of colonial damage carelessly inflicted on sacred places, which lingers like trauma even after the battle is seemingly won.

The bombing of Kaho’olawe ceased in the late 1970s due to the efforts of Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana, a grassroots organization that led the protests, filed a federal complaint against the bombing of Kaho’olawe by the navy and occupied the island. One of the organization’s leaders, Walter Ritte, remains a staunch supporter 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 Representative Lynn DeCoite) for his comment. As someone who risked their life for Kaho’olawe, I wanted to hear her take on the island’s lasting trauma and healing.

Walter Ritte. Photo by Mickey Pauole

Speaking calmly as the roosters crowed in the background, Ritte (affectionately nicknamed “Uncle Walter” by his campaign manager) said the fire “kind of reminded me why we started the whole thing. fight against Kaho’olawe. We used to see fires at night from the bombs, and even during the day. Therefore [the fire] brought back a lot of memories.

“He also told us that there is an element of tremendous danger on this island, when firefighters can’t even get there or helicopters can’t even fly over it. There is a false sense of security that exists. So this highlighted the fact that it is a very dangerous island.

Indeed, while restoration efforts are in full swing, it has been said that the healing of the earth will take generations, despite the bombardments that took place over a relatively short twenty years. Ritte recalled that his effort with PKO was initially focused on a simple mission: to stop the bombing. After that, his point of view differs from other members of the movement.

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

“But I didn’t think man could afford, no matter how much money they brought in, to do a better job than nature… I didn’t understand why we needed a cold room, freezers and The air conditioning. entire rooms and baseyards. It reminded me of going down to Kaka’ako on O’ahu with all the equipment and machinery dead. I thought it was too much, too soon for this island. But it was all justified so that they could replant the hardpan, and you can’t dispute that.

Due to his position, Ritte moved on to other causes, but Kaho’olawe’s lessons stuck with him.

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

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

“I really am a big fan of nature,” Ritte told me. “On the rest of the islands, what I feel is that [people] kill the life of the earth. They mine, mine, mine for profit until the life of the earth is gone. And then they will move elsewhere. This type of economy will not 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, “Oh, shit, what did we do?” See it took about 40 years to kill [Kaho‘olawe] or bring it close to death, and it happens to all the islands. What saved him was just the love of the land – it was Aloha ‘Aina.

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