Due to climate change and changes in the way humans use land
The number and extent of extreme wildfires will increase
and spread to previously unaffected areaspicture
After living in Hawaii for 31 years, Francis experienced “life and death escape” on the way to get off work for the first time.
On the evening of August 8, local time, Francis drove home from get off work at a bank in the town of Lahaina. On this all-too-familiar road, heat waves and black smoke suddenly hit, and the road was instantly blocked. Like most people, she abandoned the car and fled to the sea, hugging a big rock tightly in the sea, and the embers beside the water left large and small burn marks on her arms. Her eyes were burned by the smoke and then stung by the salt water.
Hours later, Francis climbed onto the rocks and sat down against the seawall, exhausted. In the early morning of the 9th, rescuers arrived. When he regained consciousness, Francis found himself in a truck with many wounded, speeding across a scorched field.
In the week since, Hawaii has suffered one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history. As of August 15, the death toll from the fire in Maui, Hawaii, has risen to 99. As the search and rescue work progresses, this number may double in the next 10 days. This fire has also become the “deadliest wildfire” in the United States in 100 years.
“Burn a mile a minute”
At night, when the acrid smoke hit, Lahaina resident Walpal woke up, the house was dark, and the electricity was cut off. Later, she saw the nearby dry grass on Luna Road in Lahaina burst into flames, and nearby utility poles collapsed one after another.
Two days earlier, the National Weather Service’s regional headquarters in Honolulu had issued a warning for Hurricane Dora. The tropical island of Hawaii is experiencing a severe drought when strong easterly winds blow. The drought has been particularly severe in the west, including the historic town of Lahaina on the island of Maui.
Around 6:30 a.m. on August 8, Maui County authorities received the first report of the fire. Soon after, the police came to patrol the community where Walpal lived. In an interview with local media, Volpal said she didn’t panic at first and the fire appeared to be small. “Here in Hawaii, sporadic fires are common.”
Around 10 a.m. that day, Maui County authorities announced that the fire was “100% contained.”
After spending hours at his daughter’s house, Volpal returned home. Several fire trucks parked near the community, packed up their equipment and prepared to return.
At noon, Hawaii, a tourist destination known for its sunny beaches, regained its calm. Hawaii, which became the 50th U.S. state in 1959, is an archipelago about 2,000 miles west of the U.S. mainland and consists of eight main islands, including Hawaii, known as the Big Island, and Maui in Hawaii Northwest of the island, Lahaina is on the westernmost coast of Maui.
Steffer lived near the downhill stretch of Luna Road in Lahaina. Although he heard that the fire in the morning had been extinguished, he was still a little uneasy. Five years ago, a wildfire destroyed his house.
The wildfire under the hillside ignited again, and Steffer was shocked by the speed of the flames, which he had never seen before. “Within a few minutes, a wall of fire appeared 30 yards (about 27 meters) from the house.” , The shingles on the roof were also torn off.
“The fire is spreading rapidly, with winds of up to 81 miles per hour (about 130 kilometers) per hour, which means that the fire is advancing a mile every minute.” In a video statement, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said.
On Como Mai Street in Lahaina Town, resident Anastasia watched the distant flames approaching rapidly. It took only eight minutes from seeing the distant flames to burning in her backyard. Anastasia recalled that when she ran away, she could hear the sound of propane tanks exploding, one after another. And when she looked back, there was already black smoke behind her. “I knew then that when we came back we would have nothing,” she said.
The center of the town was already stuck in a traffic jam, and many people abandoned their cars and fled, even losing their shoes. People ran to the seawall and jumped into the Pacific Ocean.
After the fire, a resident who fled from Lahaina saw how his hometown was burned in the media and wrote a comment: The house where I grew up is in the lower left corner of the last photo, and now there are only ashes left.
“The scale of the devastation is unbelievable,” Josh Green said at a news conference. The entire island of Maui has burned more than 2,000 acres (about 800 hectares). As of August 15, the fire had destroyed more than 2,200 buildings in the town of Lahaina, burned more than 2,100 acres of land, and more than 2,000 people still cannot find their families.
In Hawaiian, Lahaina means “cruel sun”. The town of Lahaina, with a population of about 12,000, is a town full of profound historical and cultural significance. It was once the royal residence of Kamehameha, the founder of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Lahaina Luna High School was where royalty and chiefs were educated, and where Kamehameha and his Council of Chiefs drafted the first Declaration of the Rights of the People and the Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii. King Kamehameha and Queen Kamehameha were buried in the town’s Werney stone churchyard, later renamed Waiola Church, 200 years ago. The town also experienced its evolution from the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii to a whaling trade center in the 19th century. It inspired the American novelist Herman Melville and made the classic “Moby Dick”.
Today, Lahaina is a major tourist destination in Hawaii, with restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and souvenir shops in historic buildings. Since this summer, about 288,000 tourists have come to Maui, many of whom are heading for the town of Lahaina. They surf, snorkel, zipline and sunbathe at the beach during the day, and stay at the very old Pioneer Hotel at night. However, the plantation-style hotel has been reduced to ashes following the deadliest wildfire in the state of Hawaii.
Waiola Church is also shown on Google Maps as permanently closed. “It’s the main place of worship in Lahaina,” said Kuhio Lewis, chief executive of the Native Hawaiian Progressive Council. “It’s like when you think of Seattle, you think of the Space Needle. In Lahaina, it’s That church. And now, it’s just gone.”
Along with the Pioneer Inn and Waiola Church, dozens of Lahaina historic sites, many of which are 150 to 200 years old, include the Baldwin House Museum, the oldest house on Maui.
“The brutal scene of this disaster has been playing in my brain,” said DeSoto Brown, historian and archivist at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The sight of walls of fire, completely destroyed buildings and towns – but I never imagined that I would see the same thing happen here, in my hometown.”
silent alarm system
Angus McKelvey hurried home from his office when the fire blazed up. He watched as a nearby apartment building was engulfed in a ball of fire that had set his house ablaze. He did not hear the emergency sirens as the fire spread rapidly, nor did he see police directing the evacuation. Like other residents trying to flee the area, he panicked and wasn’t sure what to do next.
Like McKelvey, in later interviews, many Lahaina residents said they only became aware of the severity of the fire when they saw neighbors fleeing down the street. Not only that, but due to multiple power outages caused by the fire, many Maui residents were unable to receive emergency information on their mobile phones. Locals questioned why the alarm was not issued in time and why the local area did not have enough resources to help residents when the crisis came, including enough firefighters.
McKelvey, a Hawaii state senator, told local media: “If more aggressive actions and more preparations were taken from the beginning, this brush fire may not have become a devastating community disaster.”
The state of Hawaii has what it claims is the largest outdoor public safety alarm system in the world. There are 80 sirens scattered around Maui.
In response to the public’s doubts, Maui County Mayor Richard Beeson responded vaguely in an interview with NBC: “I can’t comment on whether the alarm was sounded, but I know that the fire came so fast and spread. so fast.”
Records from the Hawaii State Emergency Management Department showed no indication that an alarm was triggered before the fire broke out. Sirens in Maui were not triggered when the Lahaina fire broke out, department spokesman Adam Weintraub said. But the county’s emergency alerts went to cellphones, TVs and radio stations. However, it’s difficult for people to be alerted this way when power and cellular networks go out.
In addition, Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, said that Maui County’s limited firefighting capacity is related to the low number of personnel. Maui County also has a maximum of 65 firefighters on the job at any given time, responding to fires on the three islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai, he said. Although the local fire department has more than a dozen fire trucks and two ladder trucks, it has no off-road vehicles. That means firefighters can’t fully extinguish bush fires before they spread to densely populated residential areas.
“Among all threats, wildfires are the most unpredictable.” Carl King, executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii, said that wildfires are different from hurricanes and volcanoes. The latter have better detection alarms and early warning systems, while the former can Triggered by many different means, such as strong winds, lightning, randomly discarded cigarette butts, and other human causes.
Carl King also mentioned that although there are nearly 400 sirens across the island of Hawaii to alert residents to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, wildfires are still difficult to track. The speed at which the wildfires spread and the damage they caused took Karl King himself by surprise.
“This tragedy demonstrates the need to learn more about the wildfire problem and to improve technologies such as mobile sensors to detect gas, smoke and flames, especially in remote wildfire-prone areas,” said Carl King, whose wildfires knocked out major communications Equipment, the alarm could not be disseminated in time, “unfortunately, by the time you have already smelled the smoke, it is too late. It is a harsh warning.”
Five years ago, more than 20 homes were destroyed in a fire in West Maui. At that time, Clay Traunicht, an ecosystem and fire expert at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, issued a warning letter in the “Maui News”: The island is facing danger, and serious consequences are very likely.
In the warning letter, Traunicht clearly pointed out that the fuel that fueled the wildfire-dry grass, has flooded.
In 2016, the last sugar cane plantation on Maui closed. Since then, the highly flammable exotic grasses have spread rapidly across vacant land that was once rich in cash crops.
Species such as guinea grass, molasses grass and buffalo grass, which originated in Africa and were first introduced to Hawaii as livestock feed, now cover nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s landmass. These grasses grow rapidly when it rains and are a major source of wildfires across Hawaii during times of drought.
“The rapid accumulation of this dry grass and fuel, coupled with hotter and drier weather and erratic rainfall, will increase the fire risk,” Traulnicht said.
For years, Traunicht and other experts have called for changes to the island’s vegetation to mitigate wildfire risk. In 2021, the wildfire prevention report issued by Maui County also called for the need to reduce the invasion of exotic plants.
Containing the spread of invasive plants is costly and complex, though, across the island of Hawaii. Moreover, Hawaii is competing with a dozen other western states for federal wildfire preparedness funding.
In addition, Hawaii faces other challenges, such as altitude changes in the terrain. Firefighters must operate in tropical forests, semi-arid scrub and volcanic slopes, sometimes having to hire expensive helicopters to fight blazes.
Human factors such as bonfires, fireworks and motor vehicle sparks have also become the main cause of fires. Due to Hawaii’s severe housing shortage, there are also a large number of homeless people who often cook outside, which further increases the risk of fire.
For this fire, Traulnicht believes that in addition to the large amount of combustibles, a combination of strong winds, extremely low humidity and potential drought caused the disaster.
Jeff Masters, a meteorologist at Yale University, said that the relationship between human-caused climate change and fires is clear. Global warming means that plants are more likely to dry out because warmer air accelerates the evaporation of water. As the air absorbs more moisture from the land, fire risk increases.
The United Nations has also warned that due to climate change and changes in the way humans use land, the number and scope of extreme wildfires will increase and spread to areas that have not been affected before.
According to climate data from the state of Hawaii, the average temperature in Hawaii is 2°C higher than in 1950. The general trend in the region is one of less precipitation and more consecutive dry days. From 1920 to 2012, more than 90 percent of the state became drier. Before the fire, Maui itself was on red alert — with high temperatures, very low humidity and stronger winds expected. Just last month, a brush fire broke out in Maui, temporarily closing a road.
A month later, the largest fire in local history broke out. “We have never experienced a wildfire affecting a city like this before.” Josh Green said that the challenge of climate change has brought unprecedented pressure to Hawaii.
As for the post-disaster reconstruction work in Lahaina Town, Josh Green said that it is expected that reconstruction will take several years and billions of dollars. Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Ross also believes that the post-disaster reconstruction work will be a “marathon rather than a sprint.”