What We Know About the Cause of the Maui Wildfires

From a Washington Post story by Adele Suliman, Lyric Li, and Tamia Fowlkes headlined “What we know about the cause of the Maui wildfires”:

Devastating wildfires in Hawaii left at least 36 people dead early Thursday, according to Maui County officials. The individuals, who have not yet been named or identified, perished in the active Lahaina fire in western Maui.

The fires have been raging across three of Hawaii’s islands, trapping local residents and visitors, causing widespread power outages and forcing many to evacuate and seek shelter.

Strong winds linked to Hurricane Dora have exacerbated the situation, hampering emergency efforts by authorities to contain the fires. Rescue missions continue but officials have called it a “tragic moment for the entire state.”

What caused the fires in Maui?

It is still unclear exactly what triggered the wildfires in Hawaii.

“We don’t know what actually ignited the fires. But we were made aware in advance from the National Weather Service that we’re in a red flag situation,” said Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who leads the Hawaii National Guard. He said three factors set the stage for fire risks: months of drought, low humidity and high winds.

The disaster’s magnitude has stunned the local government. “We expected rain, we expected floods,” Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke (D) told reporters Wednesday. “We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane that did not make impact on our islands would cause these kind of wildfires.”

Hawaii communities and ecosystems have not faced significant wildfire threats in the past, so the state lacks preparation to prevent fires and limit their impact, said Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. That includes work to harden homes so they are more resistant to embers catching fire, and to manage plant growth that fuels fires.

“It’s just kind of a nightmare recipe,” Pickett said.

A similar outbreak of fires occurred in 2018, when Hurricane Lane struck the islands. It dumped some 17 inches of rain on the Big Island and caused landslides, but also fanned fires on Maui and Oahu that burned about 3,000 acres. Pickett said the incidents demonstrate there needs to be more attention and resources paid to reducing wildfire risks in Hawaii.

Where have the fires spread to in Hawaii, and how bad is the damage?

he fires have badly affected Maui and destroyed hundreds of acres in regions including Kula, North Kohala and South Kohala.

The sprawling tourist town of Lahaina in western Maui, which has about 13,000 residents, has also been hard hit. Aerial reports “showed that more than 271 structures have been impacted” in the area and “widespread damage to the West Maui town, the harbor and surrounding areas are being documented,” said Maui County officials.

Fears are also growing for the town’s 150-year-old Lahaina banyan tree, which has long mesmerized locals and tourists alike. Standing at 60 feet high and a quarter of a mile in circumference, it is believed among conservation experts to be the largest tree of its kind in the United States — and many fear it has now been scorched by the fires.

A satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows an overhead view of the tree during the fires on Wednesday, in which it appears to be standing but severely burned.

According to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, the tree was planted in 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. Over the years, residents of the town have helped the tree to grow symmetrically by hanging water-filled jars on specific aerial roots.

Elsewhere in Maui, one resident, Chad Kistler, told The Post on Wednesday that as he sat on his porch near Haleakala in eastern Maui, he could see “multiple fires going all at once,” as a massive column of ash and smoke rose into the air near the center of town. “It’s surreal. It’s spreading across acres like nothing.” Kistler added that a burned smell emanated throughout the island.

How common are wildfires in Hawaii?

Strong winds from storms like Hurricane Dora can contribute to wildfire spread as gusts pick up to over 80 miles an hour. High-speed wind flowing through mountainous passageways and canyons can create intensified fanning that grows wildfires. In 2018, Hurricane Lane in Hawaii led to multiple fires on Maui and Oahu, burning nearly 3,000 acres of land, displacing dozens of homeless residents and destroying 21 structures.

The Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization estimates that 0.5 percent of Hawaii’s total land area burns each year.

Scientists have identified the spread of highly flammable invasive plant species as a growing threat and fuel for wildfires in the region. Tropical forests host a variety of non-native species that can disturb and disrupt the natural ecosystem, such as guinea grass. The plants invade the common territory of other native plants and diminish their ability to grow normally, according to research from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. The plants often spread across large stretches of land, uncontained and unmonitored.

Worsening drought conditions have also increased the likelihood of severe wildfires throughout the region. The U.S. Drought Monitor released a report detailing abnormal dryness in regions of Hawaii and an increase in brush fires. In recent months, Maui County experienced a significant jump in severe drought conditions.

In 2018, public safety officials advised local residents to remove wood piles, lumber and items that could catch fire from backyards and ensure that they maintained a 10- to 30-foot stretch of cleared brush between their home and any wild grass or forest areas. Additional safety precautions included keeping doors and windows closed to prevent embers from entering the house. The 2018 wildfires led to concerns about a lack of preparedness to address wildfire risks in Hawaii, and public officials have echoed similar sentiments in 2023.

“We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane which did not make impact on our islands will cause this type of wildfires, wildfires that wiped out communities, wildfires that wiped out businesses, wildfires that destroyed homes,” Luke said in a news conference Wednesday.

She added that many residents understand how to prepare for hurricanes, but simultaneous wildfires pose additional challenges that residents were not prepared to confront. Researchers say many wildfires in Hawaii are ignited by humans and massive blazes can be exacerbated by allowing untended land to grow in residential areas.

What can I do to help with the Hawaii fires?

Hawaii’s Gov. Josh Green (D) has estimated the flames have already caused billions of dollars in damage and could exacerbate the state’s existing housing shortage. He warned that the state does not have enough shelter for long-term living, and urged visitors to leave or cancel nonessential travel for Maui to open up hotel rooms, Airbnb listings and other accommodations for the displaced.

“We’ll welcome visitors back to paradise after the fire’s done and after we can rebuild,” Green said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.

The Office of the Governor of Hawaii has directed donors toward the Hawaii Community Foundation.

Several aid organizations and charities are accepting donations to help those affected by the wildfires including: The Maui Mutual Aid Fund, which is accepting donations to support Maui families, elderly residents, people with disabilities and those with limited or no insurance. Aloha United Way, a Honolulu-based nonprofit organization, has created the Maui Relief Fund that will go directly toward efforts supporting victims of the fires, it said.

The Salvation Army’s Hawaiian and Pacific islands Division is accepting donations to provide meals for thousands displaced in Maui emergency shelters and the Maui Food Bank is also providing meals for thousands of displaced residents.

Meanwhile, a number of verified fundraisers on GoFundMe are raising money to help residents rebuild and recover.

The Maui Police Department is also calling for donations of nonperishable food, bottled water, hygiene items and blankets. Donations can be dropped at Maui’s War Memorial Complex from 8 a.m. through 6 p.m. Thursday, it said. The Maui Emergency Management Agency has also posted an updated list of shelters with available space, which are accepting support and volunteers.

Scott Dance, María Paúl, Anumita Kaur and Kelsey Ables contributed to this report.

Adela Suliman is a breaking-news reporter in The Washington Post’s London hub.

Tamia Fowlkes is a general assignment reporting intern at The Washington Post. She recently graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Post, she worked at USA Today Network, “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, WISC-3 TV News, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal and Isthmus.

Speak Your Mind