The great temple of Kamehameha the Great, Pu'ukohola Heiau, rises majestically above the turquoise waters of the Pacific at Pu’ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site. Photo by NPS.
BY DANIEL KAWAIAEA and MARK WASSER
On a breezy Hawaiian day in January 2020, the warm ocean air skimmed across the knee-length grasses at the Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site on the west side of Hawaiʻi Island, making a sweeping “whooooosh” sound. Rolling grass-covered hills infused the ocean breeze with a sunbaked vegetation smell, until a whiff of smoke replaced nature’s palmy delight with the caustic scent of a burning vehicle. Suddenly, the air filled with thick smoke as the ocean winds pushed flames from the vehicle, which had ignited near the park entrance, into nearby vegetation.
The fire that started that day in January could have forever altered Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site, which is renowned for its rich cultural resources, including two large temples, or heiau in native Hawai’ian. Thankfully, firefighters were able to control the blaze, later named the Kalaupapa Fire, a few hours later, keeping it to about 20 acres. Their efforts prevented the fire from becoming a large incident and further damaging this important place, which was the site of numerous events that played a critical role in Hawai’i’s history and the formation of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Today, the National Park Service works to preserve these rich cultural resources, collaborate with the Hawai’ian community, and preserve natural resources within the site.
Despite its small size, both major and minor facilities were significantly damaged by the Kalaupapa Fire, as were natural and cultural resources. After the fire, the National Park Service repaired damage and worked with community volunteers to restore native species.
Traditionally used for thatching houses, pili is a native pan-Pacific grass that continues to be a valued species in Hawai’i. The name pili means to cling or stick, referring to its ability to cling to the house framework. It is also one of the few fire-adapted native species in Hawai‘i and was the dominant vegetation on the landscape around the late 18th century when the heiau was built.
Through the restoration project, over 500 pili plugs were planted immediately around the base of the heiau by both park staff and community volunteers. These plantings enhance the cultural landscape of the park and restore the area closer to how it appeared during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Because pili is fire-adapted, it also promotes fire resiliency and increases native species on the landscape.
This rehabilitation project accomplished several other important goals. Three aggressive, non-native plant species were removed. If left to grow and become established, these species would radically increase the fire danger on the landscape. Through restoration efforts, they will continue to be removed from the park.
The site’s restroom suffered catastrophic damage during the Kalaupapa Fire, in part due to nearby vegetation, which acted as a way for fire to enter the building’s heating, venting, and cooling system. As part of the rehabilitation efforts, the tall, flammable landscaping was replaced with four different species of low-growing, fire-resistant native plants adapted to the arid climate. Over 100 individual plants were planted, which will will reduce fire potential around the facility. The new plants will also enhance visitor educational experiences and provide interpretation opportunities about native plant species from the area.
This rehabilitation project was truly a hui, or group effort. Staff from several other National Park Service units on Hawaiʻi Island assisted with major aspects of the project and contributed labor. Community volunteers assisted with planting, which was essential to the project’s success. The project continues to strengthen this important site’s ties with the local community.