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FIRE: A relationship tested by fire

May 15, 2012

Culture. One definition is “the evolution of man’s interaction with natural resources in his physical environment”. For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, Ala Kahakai ranger will be sharing about the elements of nature and how it influences and affects life along the trail from the ocean to the mountain top.

FIRE: Pele And Kamehameha 

A legend speaks of an encounter between two powerful forces that created their own domains in Hawaii. This condensed account was published in the Kuokoa, a native language newspaper, in 1867.

Pele began to eat Huehue, a noted breadfruit forest owned by Kamehameha. She was jealous of him and angry because he was stingy in his offerings of breadfruit from the tabu grove of Huehue. This was the place where the eruption broke out. After she had destroyed the breadfruit grove, she went in her river of fire down to the seashore to take Kamehameha’s fish-ponds. She greatly desired the awa fish and mullet in the fishpond at Kiholo, and she wanted the aku (bonito) in the fishpond at Ka-ele-hulu-hulu. She became a roaring flood, widely spread out, hungry for the fish.

Kamehameha and Pele meet. (Credit: Herb Kane)

Kamehameha was very much ashamed for the evil which had come upon the land and the destruction of his fishponds. Villages had been overwhelmed. Several coconut groves had been destroyed, and lava land was built out into the sea. There were no priests who could stop this eruption by their priestly skill.

 Kamehameha sent for Ka-maka-o-ke-akua (The-eye-of-the-god), one of the prophets of Pele, and said: “You are a prophet of Pele. I have sent for you because I am much distressed by the destruction of the land and the ponds by the sea. How can I quiet the anger of Pele?”

The prophet bowed his head for a time, then, looking up, said, “The anger of the god will cease when you offer sacrifice to her.”

The king said, “Perhaps you will take the sacrifice.”

The prophet said: “From the old time, the high chief of the troubled land, with a prophet or priest, is the only one who can make peace. He must take his own offering to the fire as to an altar in a temple. Then the anger of the goddess will be satisfied and the trouble ended.”

Kamehameha was fearful that Pele would kill him but his prophet replied, “You shall not die.”

The king prepared offerings and sacrifices for Pele and, as a royal priest, went to the place where the lava was still pouring in floods out of its new-born crater. There they saw the lava like a river of fire flowing toward the west, going straight down to the sea with leaping flames and uplifting fountains of smoke. There was a very strong flashing light breaking out at the front of the descending lava. Then came great winds and a mighty storm. Houses were overturned and trees blown down.

Kamehameha and the prophet went up to the side of the lava and placed offerings and sacrifices in the flowing fire. They prayed to Pele, but the fire burned on. Kamehameha then cut some of the hair from his head and threw it in the fire as his last offering, thus giving himself to the god of fire. Then they came away and soon the fire went out. 

Hualalai flow marked in red. (Credit: Moore et al, 1987)

The 1801 lava flow from Mt Hualalai moved tremendous amount of magma from the uplands to the shoreline.  Various sources say the flow extended across a government road and covered ancient trails, habitation sites and eventually filled in Paaiea, the famous large fishpond  of Kamehameha.  Keahole International Airport now sits on the place where Paaiea once was.  Ancient and historic trails and government roads are features found within the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail corridor.  Lava can still threaten human habitation as it did recently when the flow engulfed and destroyed the last house in a subdivision on the slopes of Kilauea volcano.

Across the world, fire is used as a management tool for maintaining biodiversity and vegetation management. But climate change has caused severe drought conditions on Hawaii Island along many sections of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail.  When combined with intense winds that sweep down slope toward the leeward coastlines, flames can accelerate quickly.  Fire not only destroys fragile populations of native plants but also causes soil erosion which impacts the ocean environment and the health of watersheds. Lava still sets off wildfires but now humans are the number one cause of wildfires in Hawaii. The highest wildfire year (annual wildfire summary reports from the State of Hawaii’s Department of Forestry and Wildlife) was 2007, when 147 fires burnt 29,591of their 3,360,000 total acres protected.

Fire continues to test human relationships with the land.  What we do does affect the land. Malama aina.


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