Fires swallowed the historic town of Lahaina on the island of Maui last week. Within hours, the normally heavenly Hawaiian landscape morphed into hell.
At least 111 people died, and over 1,000 more are still missing. It was the deadliest wildfire in over a century of US history.
What remains is a city of devastation and resilience. There’s also confusion. The residents of Lahaina and the rest of the world are left wondering how the fire spread so quickly and claimed so many lives.
A combination of factors, including bad luck and mismanagement as well as changing weather trend, created the ideal conditions for disaster.
“If you add together a whole bunch of influences, that’s how you get a disaster,” Jeff Masters, a meteorologist for Yale Climate Connections, told the Washington Post. “No one thing makes it happen.”
Colonialism: Plantations brought the perfect wildfire fuel, an invasive grass
Lahaina was once the capital of the indigenous Hawaiian kingdom. But after US-backed businessmen overthrew the royalty who lived there, in 1893, sugar plantations moved in.
“It was once full of canals and fish ponds, lots of water,” Ku’uwehi Hiraishi, a reporter at Hawaii Public Radio, told the Vox podcast “Today, Explained.” “But that was for the most part filled in following the arrival of sugar plantations.”
European and American colonists had already been bringing new grasses to the islands, mostly to feed cattle, but these invasive plants boomed when sugar companies abandoned their plantations after the island’s economy shifted from farming to tourism. The grass took control of the land because there was no one to manage it.
In the first four months of 2023, heavy rains fed the grass, according to Nature. The grass grew dense.
Then in June, an intense, sudden drought dried it all up, like jerky in an oven. Masses of whithered grass laid throughout the town, easy kindling for a hungry fire.
Researchers say replacing these grasses with native plants would help the land retain more moisture and help prevent more huge, fast-spreading fires.
“We don’t have to be at the mercy of these weather events, but the way we’re operating right now, we are,” Clay Trauernicht, a fire researcher at the University of Hawaii told the Washington Post.
Climate: Drier, hotter conditions have been increasing fire risk
Scientists can’t attribute any single event to climate change without assessing it on its own. Local researchers warn that the increased risk of fires in Maui is due to hotter and drier weather conditions.
When fossil fuels such as oil are burned for energy, they emit gases that trap heat. Global temperatures have risen as a result. This is causing droughts in many places around the globe. That’s because a warmer atmosphere sucks more moisture from the ground and its vegetation, creating more fuel for blazes.
Droughts and fires are not uncommon in Hawaii, but they’re getting much worse.
“We’ve been seeing a pretty steady increase, and in the last few decades, an exponential increase in the amount of area that burns in Hawaii every year,” Abby Frazier, a climatologist at Clark University, told Nature.
Brush fires and their resulting complications have become more common in Hawaii, a 2021 report by Maui County found. “This increase poses an increased threat to citizens, properties, and sacred sites,” it detailed.
Bad luck: Hurricane Dora made strong winds that whipped fire into a frenzy
Hurricane Dora didn’t hit Hawaii, but its passing created powerful winds that helped spread the fire farther, faster.
Maui caught in between two systems, one high-pressure to the north, and another low-pressure to the south. Because these systems were so close together and their pressures were so different, trade winds grew strong as they moved between them, according to New York Times meteorologist Judson Jones.
Parts of Maui reported wind gusts of up to 67 mph.
A study was not conducted to determine the relationship between Hurricane Dora and climate change. However, scientists do know that increasing global temperatures increase hurricane strength. That’s because the storms feed on warm water and warm air.
Mismanagement or system failures: No sirens, no warning, no water
Though officials knew about the mounting risk fires posed to Maui, their warning systems were woefully insufficient. Water hydrants didn’t work, evacuation orders arrived late and sirens failed to sound.
In the most recent test of the sirens on August 1st, there were issues with them in three counties, ABC7 reported. The sirens worked when officials tested them again later in the day.
If things had gone according to plan, this would’ve been the earliest sign that Lahaina had to evacuate, followed by an official announcement by the county. But the sirens never went off, and the announcement, according to ABC7, didn’t come until 4:45 pm local time — at least an hour after the fire had blazed through much of the town.
A failure of the water system also stymied the fire department’s efforts to stop the blaze. The drought left little excess water for first responders to access, and they weren’t able to get water from the ocean because of high winds, the New York Times reported.
In the face of these failures, the local government has come under sharp scrutiny. The justice department will have a, “comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires,” Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez told the Washington Post.
Herman Andaya, the head of Maui’s emergency management agency, resigned on Thursday, citing health reasons.