Hawaii says it’s safe to surf and swim in Lahaina’s coastal waters after wildfire

HONOLULU– Hawaii authorities say coastal waters near the wildfire-hit town of Lahaina do not pose a significant risk to human health and are safe for surfing and swimming.

The Department of Health announced the decision Thursday after reviewing test results from water samples collected by groups including researchers from the University of Hawaii, the Surfrider Foundation and the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Authorities continue to restrict access to some coastal areas outside the City of Maui fire zone as cleanup efforts continue following the August 8 wildfire, and recreation is not permitted in these areas.

Officials have urged residents and visitors to limit their exposure to the waters near Lahaina since the deadly fire destroyed the historic town. They have also told people not to eat fish from Lahaina waters. The department’s announcement did not address the safety of eating fish and other marine species.

Lahaina’s waters are popular with surfers, swimmers and snorkelers. Before the fire, tour companies often took snorkelers to see coral reefs outside the city. Since the fire, tours have visited West Maui’s reefs to the north or south.

The department said it was particularly interested in test results for metals because of their high concentrations in wildfire ash and the possibility that rain and runoff could carry them into the ocean.

Measurements conducted by the University of Hawaii include assessments of nutrients, metals and carbonate chemistry. The Surfrider Foundation tested for metals and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, a class of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline.

The state analyzed samples of harbor sediments for metals, dioxins, total petroleum hydrocarbons and other contaminants.

Scientists say there has never been a major urban fire next to a coral reef anywhere in the world. They are using the Maui wildfire as an opportunity to study how chemicals and metals from burned plastic, lead paint and lithium-ion batteries can affect fragile reef ecosystems.