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Saturday, August 26, 2023

Maui and Michigan: A Tale of Two Fires

Truly serious are the allegations that the disaster in Maui was marked by massive government failure, from the untended brush that fueled the flames to the lack of warning once the fires began.

Image Credit: iStock

You gotta love those Babylon Bee headlines. When the President blundered into Maui a few days ago, the Bee announced, Biden Tells Fire Victims He Sympathizes Because One Time He Walked On The Beach Without Sandals And The Sand Was Really Hot).

A day earlier, Biden gaffed about how the Maui blazes prompted him to recall the time his kitchen caught fire, endangering his Corvette (for about 20 minutes). He also greeted a search-and-rescue dog wearing fire-proof boots with the quip, “That’s some hot ground, man.”

Readers will understand why that Babylon Bee headline struck me as serious news until I realized it was satire.

Truly serious are the allegations that the disaster was marked by massive government failure, from the untended brush that fueled the flames to the lack of warning once the fires began.

One of the Maui locals who weighed in was attorney Jordon Aimoku Chee. “The government is liable for it,” he declared, because “it is grossly negligent, at least, if not criminally negligent…They failed. The government failed.”

Former Hawaii Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard apparently agrees. “They are still not seeing response from the county, the state, the federal government to be able to go out and help them,” she said. “The community-support hubs that they have are 100% community-led, volunteer supply collections conducting all of these coordinations on their own.” The people of Maui, she explained, feel “like the government doesn’t care about them—and that’s a horrible, horrible disservice to people who have gone through a kind of loss that we can’t even imagine.”

The tragedy in Hawaii reminded Biden of his kitchen; but the horrific nature of it and government’s culpability in it brought to my mind another event, long forgotten. I refer to the terrible fire that swept across Michigan’s Thumb area in 1881. A good friend and one of America’s finest historians, Burton Folsom, wrote about it in a 1997 article titled, The Difference Between a Fire and a Flood. The following is an extensive excerpt:

Raging flames swept through the Thumb area, killing almost 200 people and destroying over one million acres of timberland. “The flames ran faster than a horse could gallop,” said one survivor of this devastating blaze. Its hurricane-like fury uprooted trees, blew away buildings, and destroyed millions of dollars of property in the Michigan counties of Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac, and Lapeer.

At the time of the Michigan fire, Americans looked inward to themselves, not outward to the federal government, to assist the victims. They became the most generous people on earth, partly because they knew government had nothing to give except what it taxed away in the first place, and partly because they saw it as a personal responsibility to help their fellow citizens in need.

For Michiganians in 1881, this meant an outpouring of help freely given from fellow Americans everywhere. In fact, the Michigan fire became the first disaster relief effort of Clara Barton and the newly formed American Red Cross. As the smoke billowed eastward across the nation, Barton’s home town of Dansville, New York, became a focal point of relief. According to the officers of the Dansville Red Cross, a call from Clara Barton “rallied us to our work.”

“Instantly,” they said, “we felt the help and strength of our organization [the Red Cross], young and untried as it was.” Men, women, and children throughout western New York brought food, clothing, and other gifts. Before the Red Cross would send them to Michigan, a committee of ladies inspected each item and restitched garments or replaced food when necessary.

Speed was important, not only because many were hungry but also because winter was approaching. Bedding and heavy clothing were in demand. Railroads provided the shipping. People left jobs and homes and trekked to Michigan to get personally involved in the rebuilding. Soon the Red Cross in New York and the local relief committees in Michigan were working together to distribute supplies until “no more were needed,” according to the final report from the Red Cross.

Michigan leaders, of course, were grateful for the friendship and help that came from the Red Cross. It made disaster relief faster, more efficient, and national in scope. But even if such help had not come, Michiganians were prepared to organize all relief voluntarily within the state. In a previous fire in 1871, nearly 3,000 Michigan families were left homeless; Governor Henry Baldwin personally organized the relief efforts and gave out of his own pockets about $150,000 (over $3 million in today’s dollars). Few if any thought it necessary to create a federal relief bureaucracy.

If there’s any good news coming out of Maui right now, it’s the initiative that private individuals are undertaking to aid recovery. The usual gusher of help from the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and countless individual donors is, as it always is, very much a part of the equation. But so is what the people of Hawaii are doing on their own. An NBC News article titled, “Survivors of Maui Fires Set Up Their Own Aid Network as Trust in Government Falters,” quotes Kekoa Lansford, who ferried victims to safety in his own truck:

“Our community is the one stepping up,” he said. “If you look at all of the different relief aid stops and centers, you’ll see there is a native Hawaiian in charge of every single one. Native Hawaiians have shouldered the relief effort because they do not expect help from the local or federal government. It comes from the belief that if we don’t do something, we’re going to die. They’re not coming to help us.”

I’m betting that the return-on-investment on Lansford’s truck is far higher than what the taxpayers got for Air Force One’s costly flight from Washington to Maui.


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.