Video Courtesy DLNR

LAHAINA, Hawaii (KHON2) — The banyan tree that sits in the heart of Lāhainā has been the focus of much hope and speculation since the town was brought to ruin by a brush fire turned wildfire on Tuesday, Aug. 8.

The 150-year-old banyan tree is the largest of its kind in the United States, taking up nearly two acres of space. Since the roots of the tree grow from its branches down to the ground, banyan tree complexes end up having several root trunks that create the illusion of a grove; when in fact, it is a single tree.

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The fire did a good bit of damage to the banyan tree which has led many to speculate on the reality of its continued existence.

Nexstar Media Wire was able to catch up with a helicopter operator for Air Maui named Richard Olsten who had this to say after he flew over the banyan tree on Wednesday, Aug. 9, one day after the fire tore through Lāhainā.

“All the places that are tourist areas, that are Hawaiian history, are gone; and that can’t be replaced,” said Olsten. “You can’t refurbish a building that’s just ashes now. It can’t be rebuilt; it’s gone forever. It’s a huge impact and blow on the history of Hawaii and Maui and Lāhainā.”

Arborists are in the process of saving Lāhainā’s great tree. dlnr

These are the steps arborists are taking to help the tree repair and survive:

  • The first step is to do what is called aeration. This is breaking up the compaction of the soil. That means they are breaking up the burnt soil so that moisture can enter.
  • Once the soil is broken up, they will be putting a compost on the tree. This contains microorganisms that will help the tree take in nutrients.
  • Next, they will be putting on what is called a bio char. This is a type of material that will assist the tree to absorb moisture and nutrients.
  • But because not everything the tree absorbs will be beneficial to it, DL|NR will add an acid that will help destroy foreign materials that could harm the tree.
  • The steps that follow include monitoring the soil moisture which means that someone will be checking the moisture of the soil and the tree every few days. This will include documenting the recovery process of the tree so they can monitor its healing.
  • During all of this, arborists will be watering the tree. This is where monitoring and documenting will really come in handy because it will help them not overwater the tree.

When arborists checked on the tree in the days following the fire, they checked underneath the bark. What they found was that the tree still contained tissue that is alive. They said they did not observe major charring or scarring on the tree, unlike most other trees in the area.

However, they also did not find good sap flow.

“We found sap underneath it, but this particular species of tree usually oozes out sap a lot,” explained the arborist “So, since it’s not oozing out sap, it’s kinda like going into a coma. It’s like it’s kinda going into a holding stage.”

The fire has caused the banyan tree to go into a sort of coma. So, the arborists are treating it like a coma patient.

They are giving it “IV shots” with the aeration and the treatments they are performing. And like a coma patient, they do not know how long it will take for the tree to wake up from its holding stage.

“As soon as we see a new bud pop or something like that, then we know that the tree’s responding to our treatments,” said the arborist.

The tree will also let them know if the treatments are not working; if there is indication that the selected treatments are not working, then arborists will take other steps.

“So, the tree is gonna tell us what to do. And right now, we are looking at the positives. Right now, it is telling us that it needs some time to regroup and start again,” explained the arborist. “We are looking at the top of the tree where the leaves are dry and dead, but they are not charred off or burnt off. So, that indicates that the fire was not as hot up there.”

When you look at photos of the tree, you can see that many of the leaves are still on it.

“The little tips of the branches are dead. We’re leaving those on the tree even though they are dead because they act as a shade cover for the branches below,” said the arborist.

The arborist also explained that the charred and dead branches are much like what happens to human skin when a person sits in an office all week and goes to the beach without sunscreen.

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So, the 150-year-old banyan tree that sits at the heart of Lāhainā has a good chance of surviving this ordeal. It is well on its way to becoming the beacon of hope that everyone in Lāhainā needs.