Deadliest US wildfire in a century as blaze devastates Hawaiian island


Firefighters struggle to contain the inferno raging across Maui.

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Image by National Interagency Fire Center. US firefighters tackle a blaze in Colorado in 2020.

By Shannon Reed

A wildfire that broke out in West Maui, Hawaii, last week became the deadliest American wildfire in more than a century, as it consumed the historical town of Lahaina. With rescue efforts now underway, officials are predicting the current death toll of 114 people to increase in the coming days as more than 1000 stand unaccounted for.

Wildfires are the uncontrolled burning of brush or vegetation that are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change. While they can occur naturally and contribute to overall ecosystem health, increasing global temperatures provide the warm and dry conditions in which the risk, timing and severity of wildfire increases. The requirements for a blaze to start, known to experts as the ‘fire triangle’, are fuel (such as the non-native grasses covering Hawaii), oxygen and heat. In the face of so-called 'global boiling', our biggest mitigation is controlling what fuel is available.

Hawaii is no stranger to wildfires, with its arid stretches of lava fields and dry grasslands experiencing 90 wildfires between 1999 and 2019; averaging four per year. In 2020, a mitigation plan produced by Maui County established the area of West Maui to have the highest annual probability for wildfires over all other communities. Experts believe this may be due to prolific invasive species of non-native grasses following the closure of plantations since the 1990s. Sugar cane and pineapple plantations had shaped the economy of the Hawaiian islands for over 200 years, but when tourism became more economically viable, corporations abandoned the plantations. Now unmanaged, vast areas of former arable land have become overrun with invasive species of grass that are not resistant to burning. In modern day Lahaina, a town that was home to 13,000 people, invasive vegetation had run rampant, providing abundant fuel for wildfires to devastate the community.

The Hawaiian climate has also contributed to the growth and spread of non-native plant species, with heavy rain between November and March each year facilitating the rapid growth of non-native grasses. In the week prior to the wildfire, nearly 16 percent of Maui county was in severe drought, which, combined with high winds from the nearby Hurricane Dora, created the ideal conditions for a wildfire to occur.

Whilst the US authorities have not yet determined the cause of this wildfire, with between 85 and 90 percent of all wildfires resulting from human-causes, some experts believe that a live electrical wire fallen in the high winds could have provided the spark to last week’s devastation. The result? An outcry of criticism from survivors of the Maui wildfire towards both the US authorities over their "slow response" and Hawaiian Electric, who did not turn off electrical infrastructure despite the “High Wind Watch and Red Flag Warning conditions” (via the National Weather service) in Maui before the wildfire started. Many survivors await news of peers and loved ones who are still missing, and face uncertainty as to how this community will rebuild given it has the highest cost of living of any US State. The Maui Emergency Management Agency estimates the cost of rebuilding to be approximately $5.52 billion.

US President Joe Biden, amid criticism of his administration’s “slow response”, is set to visit Maui on Monday.