UH researching Maui wildfire impacts on agriculture, health with federal grants

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In the wake of the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire on Maui, researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi have launched projects that focus on agriculture’s monitoring and response to disasters, and analyzing the possible effects of chromium on West Maui agricultural lands.

The US Department of Agriculture is providing $519,000 in grants from its National Institute of Food and Agriculture for the projects: $268,472 for “AgriWatch” and $250,942 for chromium dangers.

Changes in agriculture land use on Maui from 2014 (left) and 2019 are reflected in the shift away from growing sugarcane. Map: UH at Mānoa

AgriWatch aims to understand vulnerabilities, mitigate risks and foster resilient agriculture practices by developing rapid response and impact monitoring and assessment capabilities for disasters related to fire and agriculture in Hawaiʻi, according to Qi Chen, project director and geography professor in UH Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences.

The research team will leverage cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence, satellite remote sensing, cloud computing and web applications. They plan to create high-resolution crop data layers for 2023 and 2024, using proven deep learning methods.


These methods, previously successful in California and Texas, will be adapted for the unique needs of Hawaiʻi. The team also will assemble high-resolution fire and vegetation condition maps, and will create an online disaster monitoring and impact assessment platform that enables near real-time disaster monitoring and impact assessment, according to a UH press release.

Collaborations are planned with farmer-supporting organizations statewide to provide outreach and training in the use of the data and tools. Organizations include Hawaiʻi Farmers’ Union United, Hawaiʻi Farm Bureau, the Hawaiʻi Food Hub Hui and the UH Cooperative Extension Services. High school and undergraduate students, including from the Hawaiʻi State 4-H program, also will be invited to participate in research activities.

AgriWatch will fill knowledge and data gaps in crop types, provide open data access and online tools for near real-time disaster monitoring and assessment, restore food production and mitigate disaster risks. Current plans are to have the project developed and ready to use by November 2024.


“By integrating state-of-the-art technologies, collaboration and education, the initiative aims not only to address the aftermath of the Maui fire disaster, but to also build a foundation for a more resilient and adaptive agricultural landscape,” said Zhe Li, project co-director and geographer with the USDA.

In addition to Chen and Li, members of the research team include: Noa Lincoln, project co-director and associate researcher in the UH Mānoa’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences; Zhengwei Yang, project co-director and geographer with USDA; Haonan Chen, project co-director and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Colorado State University; and Changyong Cao, project collaborator and chief of NOAA’s Satellite Calibration and Data Assimilation Branch in Satellite Meteorology and Climatology Division.

In the other project, researchers are investigating the impact of toxic chromium in the Maui wildfire-impacted soil, and develop cost effective and practical bioremediation strategies.


Chromium is contained in large amount in the volcanic Hawaiʻi soils. But while chromium itself isn’t toxic, when heated it can become highly toxic and easily spread. The toxic chromium can affect public health in agricultural communities through multiple exposure routes, including direct skin contact, dust inhalation and drinking water consumption.

This project is led by UH Mānoa College of Engineering and Water Resources Research Center Professor Tao Yan.

He and his research team also will determine the toxic chromium levels in agricultural and forest soils through field sampling and laboratory experiments. Laboratory experiments will be conducted to test mulching and acidic compost amendments as cost-effective and practical bioremediation strategies to reduce the toxic soil.

Yan said the project also will educate and communicate the associated public health risks to the impacted communities.


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