A different time. Different attitudes. Same place.
The talk had turned to cane harvesting. The boss, KNUI owner Tom Elkins, grumphed half-heartedly, "Had to skim my pool to get rid of the Maui snow." Maui snow? "Oh, well. I knew I'd be getting some when I bought the house."
Kihei was just beginning to become the fastest growing community on the island, if not the state. Tom lived in one of the oldest, post-war residential areas. He answered a hesitant question. "Maui snow is the black ash that comes from burning the fields. Just another anomaly of life on the island."
As he turned to head back into his office, Elkin said, "After the snow comes the dust from plowing and replanting. It's no big deal. So you have to clean a little more. It only lasts a few weeks every 18 months or so."
Tom was devoted to the idea of small-town reporting. The station had a one-woman, two-man news crew, and one of the disc jockeys was willing to cover news stories when needed. An unscheduled field burn, a case of arson, had spread to brush land above Kihei. Dennis Walsh, the DJ, jumped into the station's four-wheel-drive International Scout and drove over to supply reports via a two-way radio.
Walsh was the kind of reporter who wanted to get close to the action. He drove into a brush area. Suddenly, an excited report came over the radio. "Got to make this short. The fire is burning this way. The firemen are running. I've got to get out of here. More later." He made it out OK, but reeked of smoke for the rest of the day.
My first direct experience with a cane fire came on Haleakala Highway below Pukalani. A roadside field was burning. I joined two or three cars parked along the road. Flames were leaping 30 or 40 feet into the night sky. A light breeze pushed the smoke away from us.
We all stood in amazement. I'm convinced humankind's first psychedelic experience came from watching fires. The altered awareness may not be limited to homo sapiens. Cyrano, the house cat, often sits and stares into the fireplace flames.
When there were three sugar plantations on the island - Pioneer Mill on the west side, Wailuku Sugar and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar - cane fires were a more common sight. Pioneer Mill's fields are being turned into developments. Wailuku Sugar is no more. HC&S, the last sugar operation in the state, soldiers on, as it has for 140 years.
HC&S farms 36,000 acres of Central Maui. In the late 1940s, it absorbed many of the sugar workers left out of work in Hana when Paul Fagan set up Hana Ranch. Fagan closed down the last of a dozen or so sugar plantations scattered along the Hana-Kipahulu coast. Today, there are 800 employees at HC&S.
After World War II, Maui's economy tanked. Graduating high school seniors had few employment possibilities - mostly state and county government, the military, Maui Land & Pineapple Co. and the sugar plantations. In the 1950s, there were more Maui-born individuals living on Oahu and the Mainland than there were on Maui.
HC&S is under siege, economically and politically.
The economy is tied directly to the amount of water it can use. Make ethanol? In the 1930s and through WWII, most of the plantation's vehicles ran on ethanol. The problem today is the immense amount of water needed to produce the sugar-based fuel. Much of the water in the ditch system inaugurated in the 1800s goes into Upcountry faucets and irrigation systems.
Politically, HC&S is nose-to-nose with health fascists and late-comers who have bought property in Kihei, probably without knowing about the fallout from upwind fields. The Maui News "Letters to the Editor" will soon include carping about cane fires. Those two words never fail to bring up a song popular in the 1970s. The operative lyric in "Cane Fire" was "got to save the children," a not-so-subtle reference to an illegal crop.
To ameliorate criticism, HC&S recently sent letters to homeowners, even in Kula where cane fires are distant phenomena. And where I live. The company also took out a quarter-page color ad in last Sunday's issue of The Maui News. Both list burn schedules and locations. Individuals can also check hesugar.com or sign up for email, telephone or text updates of times and locations of burns.
Old-timers accept cane fires as an integral part of Maui life. Newcomers don't. It's a different time with different attitudes. Maybe it's not the same place.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer and editor for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.