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United by Fire: ACE Brings Disaster Recovery and Resilience into Focus in California and Hawai’i

Tragedies often bring about unity of purpose. Hailing from politically and geographically distinct backgrounds, Representatives Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) and Jill Tokuda (D-HI) joined BPC’s American Congressional Exchange (ACE) for back-to-back visits to each other’s districts to learn from ongoing recovery efforts in the wake of destructive wildfires and spur hope for the future as they help their communities rebuild.

Six years ago, the Camp Fire ravaged the town of Paradise and surrounding communities in northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. The fire destroyed over 18,000 structures in the small town and was the deadliest wildfire of the last century until August 2023, when wildfire claimed over 100 lives and ravaged the historic town of Lāhainā in Maui, Hawai’i. Rep. LaMalfa, who represents Paradise and surrounding communities impacted by the Camp Fire, understood the challenges ahead for Lāhainā and reached out to Rep. Tokuda to offer his support in the aftermath of the disaster. The congresswoman welcomed the opportunity to meet with local, county, and federal officials in Paradise to learn about their ongoing recovery.

There, local leaders outlined best practices for federal policymakers to support affected communities after a traumatic disaster. A tour brought Reps. Tokuda and LaMalfa to the community’s new high school, showcased newly constructed affordable housing, and included discussions with US Forest Service agents on sustainable forestry practices. Rebuilding vital infrastructure is an urgent challenge for communities recovering from disaster, and Rep. Tokuda was particularly eager to emulate the efforts of the Paradise Building Resiliency Center, established in the wake of the Camp Fire as a “one-stop shop” to expedite the permitting and approval process for the construction of housing and other basic infrastructure.

ACE then headed to Maui, where Rep. Tokuda shared her learnings from Paradise with Maui Mayor Richard Bissen and his local Advisory Council, which interfaces with the community to ensure recovery efforts are grounded in the needs and realities of residents who were directly affected by the wildfires. The representatives then joined federal, state, and local officials for a survey of the Lāhainā burn zone, where they were briefed on the clean-up operation and options for rebuilding. While much has been done to clear the area since August, the scale of devastation remains stunning, and recovery and rebuilding efforts will persist for years to come.

The members of Congress found it particularly impactful to hear from the local community about their wishes for a reconstructed Lāhainā that incorporates native Hawai’ian culture and tradition. Perhaps most significantly, witnessing the progress made in rebuilding Paradise gave both lawmakers hope for a prosperous future in Lāhainā. “There is a definite comfort knowing that, while the road ahead for our communities is long, we aren’t on it alone,” Representative Tokuda said in a speech on the House floor following the trip“I’m honored to have a trusted partner and friend in Congressman LaMalfa, and I look forward to the work we will do together.”

Fortunately, tragedy is not the only common denominator between the two lawmakers. While a vast expanse of the Pacific separates their districts, both members of Congress serve on the House Agriculture Committee and represent districts home to numerous agricultural producers and agribusinesses—albeit very different kinds.

In California, the representatives visited two rice farms and learned about the importance of water management and environmentally sustainable farming methods to mitigate off-farm impacts. As Rep. Tokuda saw firsthand, there is also frequent conjunctive use of farmland for wildlife habitation and other practices to sustain the broader environment and ecosystem in the Sacramento Valley. The members also visited local agribusinesses, including a family farm growing and producing Mediterranean-inspired food products, a brewery and taphouse utilizing grains grown on an adjacent farm, and a local “farm-to-bottle” almond milk producer. The representatives also visited a neighborhood farmers market in Chico, where they met local food entrepreneurs and learned about the challenges of starting, growing, and maintaining a small business centered on an agricultural product.

In Hawai’i, the lawmakers visited Mahi Pono, a local farming company managing over 41,000 acres on Maui to grow food for local consumption and provide high-quality agricultural employment. At a reserve on Oahu, the lawmakers rolled up their sleeves—and their pant legs—to try their hand at planting taro root in a shallow, muddy pond. Later, the representatives (figuratively) got their feet wet in the world of fisheries and coral reef ecology during a visit to the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, where Rep. LaMalfa learned about reef preservation and other conservation issues distinct from those in his land-locked district.

Despite the shared tragedy underpinning their ACE trips, Reps. Tokuda and LaMalfa returned to Washington with confidence in the path ahead for restoring their communities and gained a trusted collaborator across the aisle. The lawmakers are eager to strengthen disaster recovery and resilience through federal policymaking, and plan to unite local officials from their districts in Paradise to share lessons learned from the Camp Fire recovery and inform strategies for rebuilding in Maui.

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