Why the Maui Wildfires Were So Deadly

6 minute read

The devastating Maui wildfires have killed at least 99 people so far, and have burned more than 2,500 acres across historic towns like Lahaina, destroying homes and businesses in the region. It is now the deadliest wildfire incident in the U.S. in over a century, and the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history.

The catastrophe began on Aug. 8. High winds, that some officials say may have been as strong as 60-81 mph, engulfed the area in flames at a rate that was difficult to escape. A lagging emergency warning system caused chaos on the island, with anecdotes of survivors running to the ocean to escape the flames. More than a thousand people remain unaccounted for. 

A week later, officials still do not know what the exact cause of the fires were, but experts say that the wildfires' devastation is due to a mix of high temperatures, strong winds from a Category 4 storm near the islands, and drought conditions that dried out grasses on the island.

Annually, about 0.5% of Hawaii’s total land area burns due to wildfires, according to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. Seventy-five percent of these fires are caused by humans and therefore preventable, but none have ever been as devastating as the Maui wildfires.

Read more: What Remains After the Flames: Scenes From the Ash-Colored Streets of Maui

Experts warn that extreme weather conditions and disasters like these wildfires will occur more frequently and with greater intensity due to climate change, though that is not the only contributing factor at hand. “When the air is hotter it can hold more water vapor, so that means you get more water evaporating from plants, and that dries them out,” says Jeff Masters, a meteorologist for Yale Climate Connections. “But you can't blame it just on climate change, that's for sure. Humans are causing this wildfire risk in multiple ways.”

What caused the fires? 

Officials are still unclear on what exactly sparked the fires in Maui, though focus has turned towards the state’s biggest power utility company, Hawaiian Electric, to assess their role in the wildfires.

Lahaina residents are suing the company because they allege Hawaiian Electric’s equipment was not strong enough to withstand such fast winds, and that the company should have shut down the power before winds reached such high levels—a common practice in states like California, which experiences the most wildfires nationwide. 

Regardless, the deadly blazes were also caused by a combination of conditions including hot weather, strong winds, and a drought that has been affecting the state since the month of May. 

The island was under high alert because of Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm that traveled hundreds of miles away from the island, making its closest approach to the islands on Aug. 8. The exact effect Hurricane Dora had on the wildfires remains unclear. Hurricane Expert Phillippe Papin from the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center tweeted that the hurricane may have played a minor role in the fires because it had a small wind field, which is the area that is potentially affected by the storm’s sustained winds. But other experts like Masters note that the tropical storm still created a “very strong high pressure system” that may have contributed to the high gusts of wind.

“If you give a spark in those kinds of conditions, drought plus heat plus wind, it can lead to very rapid fire spread and very intense fires,” Masters says.

Read more: How to Help Those Affected by the Maui Wildfires

Temperatures on the day of the fires were also up to 90°F, which dries out vegetation and makes it more fire prone, according to Masters.

He adds that the presence of invasive grasses, like guinea grass, also fueled the fires forward. Nonnative grasses that were used to feed livestock or for ornamental purposes were brought to the island decades ago, and are now posing hazardous risks because they are highly flammable.    

Was the community prepared for it?

Questions related to the preparedness of the state have risen as details about the day of the fires revealed that emergency sirens did not alert residents to what was happening.

“I don't think we were ready for it,” Maximus Yarawamai, a 63-year-old gardener, tells TIME. Yarawamai, who traveled from his home on the Big Island to Lahaina to help the community in need, compares the damage he’s seen to what he imagines Pearl Harbor or the Twin Towers to have looked like after those catastrophes. “I think we never thought that this would happen in Hawaii. We've had fires but not this magnitude.” 

Yarawamai’s words echo the sentiments not just of many Hawaiian residents, but likely also of officials who may have been unprepared for fires of this magnitude. A February 2022 emergency management plan by the state of Hawaii rated wildfires as low and medium risk across the board for its effect on people, property, the environment, and emergency management program operations.

A 2021 Maui County report found that the number of incidents caused by fires on the island has increased over the years. While there are annual fluctuations in the destruction caused by fires, Hawaii’s acre burnage before the Maui wildfires peaked at more than 50,000 acres in 2019 compared to slightly over 10,000 in 2007. That report also pointed out potential issues in times of emergency, including limited roads in and out of Maui County that make it more difficult to provide emergency care, and also limit escape routes for residents.

“The investigation revealed that current budgets, combined with County and State access to Federal emergency relief funding, are adequate to meet the current fire threat, but are inadequate for an effective fire prevention and mitigation program,” the report says. 

Now, residents like Yarawamai are asking for the government to think of long term solutions. “I think the immediate needs [for disaster recovery] are there,” he says, “but what's the next move? What's the next thing we need to do?”

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