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Maui’s Wildfires

As climate change has created warmer and drier conditions over the years, the presence and impact of wildfires has grown. One such recent wildfire in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii is now the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Photo Credit: Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP, File)

Hawaii, often associated with serene beaches and tropical beauty, is an archipelago comprising eight main islands in the Central Pacific Ocean. The island of Maui, Hawaii is the second-largest island at 727.2 square miles and home to 168,000 people. The entire island chain boasts some of the world's most diverse ecosystems.

Map of Maui, Hawaii
Map of Maui. Photo Credit: Go Hawaii

The Fires

The first wildfire started around 12:22 AM on Tuesday, August 8th near the Olinda Road area of Kula. A second fire ignited a few hours later at 6:37 AM near Lahaina. Initially thought to be contained, the Lahaina fire jumped the containment line around 3:30 PM as winds carried smoke and embers towards town. By 3:40 PM, residents were fleeing their neighborhoods in a bid to escape the fire and by 4:00 PM, the fire made its way towards downtown Lahaina. Flames spread so fast that was no warning for most. Many people climbed into the ocean to try to escape the flames and smoke.

Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, after a wildfire reduced the historic resort town to ash and ruins in August 2023.
Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, after a wildfire reduced the historic resort town to ash and ruins in August 2023. Photo Credit: Paula Ramon—AFP/Getty Images

While the exact cause is currently being investigated, it was most likely due to a combination of factors. Prolonged droughts, exacerbated by climate change, created exceptionally dry conditions across the islands. The drought combined with Hurricane Dora’s strong winds passing by 500 miles south of the islands downed at least 30 power poles in West Maui. Hawaiian Electric had no procedure in place for turning off the grid which is a common action for wild-fire prone states. It is suspected that these downed lines set dry grasses alight, and quickly spread by Hurricane Dora’s winds.


Response

Initial response to the wildfires was challenging. The island of Maui only has roughly 200 firefighters across 10 fire stations. Many were already tackling the two fires from earlier in the day or had difficulty using fire hydrants due to the fires having melted the water pipes that keep the hydrants pressurized. Additionally, the Maui County emergency sirens were never used, road closures due to downed power lines, and communications interruptions, including 911, cell, and landlines down, contributed to a delayed response in helping the residents, particularly of Lahaina.


In the face of this crisis, the government of Hawaii mobilized resources to combat the wildfires and support affected communities. Firefighters from across the islands and mainland United States were dispatched and evacuation centers were set up to provide shelter and support to displaced residents. Additionally, the Administrator for the county’s emergency management agency resigned last week amongst criticism for not activating the emergency sirens and a well-respected interim administrator was named. The Lt. Governor of Hawaii quickly declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard and emergency funds to be released. President Biden also ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.


Impact

Search efforts will continue for the next few weeks. As of August 25th, the official death toll stands at 115 people. Many more are still unaccounted for as recovery efforts continue. Along with numerous people missing, more than 2,700 buildings were destroyed, and hundreds more damaged.

This combination of satellite images shows an overview of southern Lahaina on Maui, Hawaii, on June 25, 2023, left, and an overview of the same area on Wednesday, Aug. 9, following a wildfire that tore through the heart of the Hawaiian island.
This combination of satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of southern Lahaina on Maui, Hawaii, on June 25, 2023, left, and an overview of the same area on Wednesday, Aug. 9, following a wildfire that tore through the heart of the Hawaiian island. Photo Credit: Maxar Technologies via AP)

The impact of these wildfires on Hawaii has been profound to the island as well. Thousands of acres of pristine forest land have been reduced to ashes, endangering countless native species and their habitats. The destruction of vegetation also poses long-term consequences, including soil erosion, loss of agricultural land, and impaired water quality.


Resources for Support

It will take a lot of time and resources to help the residents of Maui recover. If you'd like to learn more about the impact of the wildfires or how you can help, check out:

  1. Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO): HWMO is actively involved in wildfire prevention, preparedness, and recovery efforts in Hawaii. Visit their website to learn about their initiatives and find out how you can get involved or donate to support their cause. Website: HWMO Website

  2. American Red Cross - Hawaii Chapter: The American Red Cross is providing critical assistance to wildfire victims in Hawaii, including shelter, food, and emotional support. You can make a donation to their Hawaii Chapter. Website: American Red Cross - Hawaii Chapter

  3. Hawaii Community Foundation: The Hawaii Community Foundation is actively working to support communities affected by the wildfires. You can donate to their Disaster Response Fund that is dedicated to providing relief and recovery efforts. Website: Hawaii Community Foundation

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