The wildfires on Hawaii’s Maui Island that started in early August have scorched over 150,000 acres (60,702 hectares).
The speed at which the fire has spread made it especially deadly. As of 14 August, The Washinton Post reported that the fire had claimed 96 lives, with at least a thousand still missing. Officials expect the death toll to rise as the search for the victims continues in the following days.
The fire in Maui is one of the deadliest wildfires in the U.S. in the past century, with nearly 100 deaths so far, next to the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California that killed 85 people and has become a part of the more extensive list of extreme wildfires that raged across Europe and Canada this year.
Data from the Pacific Disaster Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency shows that there are 2,207 structures damaged, costing around 5.52 billion to rebuild.
Hawaii is no stranger to fires, which has seen regular and smaller-scale fires, especially in the drier part of the island. Although the official causes of the fire have yet to be determined, two residents filed a lawsuit against the state’s electric utility for not shutting down power.
They claimed that dangerous winds from Hurricane Dora had blown the power lines, spreading the Lahaina wildfire.
An article in The Washington Post describes the cause of the fire as a result of “many different agents acting together”. It notes that the links between human-caused climate change and fires are confirmed.
Hawaii’s average temperature at present is two degrees warmer than it was in 1950, which is caused by fossil fuel consumption.
Climate change is causing temperatures to rise, creating drier and hotter conditions and making hurricanes more robust, increasing wind speed that fanned the flames.
As fires spread on 8 August, Hawaii was in the middle of an area of high pressure over the North Pacific and Hurricane Dora. Winds from Hurricane Dora that intensified into a category 4 storm, hundreds of miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean, have fanned the flames across the U.S. state, officials say. A wind gust of up to 80 mph in some spots has accelerated the spread of the fires.
Dry vegetation and low humidity are also contributing factors. Hawaii is also seeing a long-term trend of declining precipitation.
The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) heavily influences the precipitation pattern in Hawaii, often described as a long-lived El Niño-like pattern of Pacific climate variability and not directly linked to climate change.
The article notes that El Niño is known for bringing drier winters and more rain than normal in the summer due to increased tropical cyclone activity.
The introduction of highly combustible non-native plants contributed to the intensity of Maui’s wildfires.
Indian Express says that changing land-use patterns in Hawaii which have seen farm and forest lands being replaced by flammable non-native species of grasses like Guinea grass, are a likely cause for the easy spread of the fire.
Dance, S. (2023, August 12). Maui fires not just due to climate change but a ‘compound disaster’. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2023/08/12/hawaii-fires-climate-change-maui/
Cho, K. Li, L. Kaur, A., McDAniel, J., Salcedo, A., DeChalus, C., Bisset, V., Suliman, A., Masih, N., & Jeonng, A. (2023, August 13). Death toll from Maui wildfires rises to 89 as officials struggle to identify remains. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/08/12/maui-fire-hawaii-wildfire-death-toll-lahaina/
Pacific Disaster Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency release Fire Damage. (2023, August 12). County of Mauii. Retrieved from https://www.mauicounty.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=12683
Hawaii wildfires: What caused the deadly blazes and is climate change to blame? (2023, August14). Euronews. Retrieved from https://www.euronews.com/green/2023/08/14/hawaii-wildfires-what-caused-the-deadly-blazes-and-is-climate-change-to-blame
Fowers, A. (2023, August 14). How the Maui fires compare with some of the deadliest U.S. wildfires. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/08/11/maui-fire-death-toll-compared-us-wildfires/
Krishna, N. (2023, August 15). Wildfires ravage Hawaii’s Maui island: How climate change has a link to the fires. The Indian Express. Retrieved from: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-climate/wildfires-hawaii-maui-climate-change-impact-explained-8891931/