Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.
Devastating wildfires swept through Maui, Hawai’i, last week, flattening the small town of Lāhainā on the western side of the island. As of August 14, almost 100 people are confirmed dead, making it the fifth deadliest wildfire in U.S. history (and the death toll continues to grow).
Officials are still determining the exact cause of the Lāhainā fire, but wildfire experts say it’s no surprise a disaster like this happened because of two factors that have significantly increased Hawai’i’s wildfire risk: an influx of highly flammable non-native grasses and climate change, which is causing warmer and drier conditions ideal for fire.
“This is climate change in action,” said Lisa Ellsworth, associate professor of wildfire science at Oregon State University, in a Daily Yonder interview. Ellsworth has authored several papers on Hawai’i’s changing firescape. “Both the more extreme wind patterns that we’re starting to see as well as the prolonged droughts and the drying out of fuel beds.”
Early Tuesday morning on August 8, 2023, a brush fire was reported at the edge of Lāhainā. Fire officials responded and reported the fire was 100% contained a few hours later. But that afternoon as wind gusts from a hurricane circulating about 500 miles south of Hawai’i blew across Maui, the fire reignited and evacuation orders were issued for the subdivisions closest to the flames.
In just 24 hours, the flames spread through the entire town, burning approximately 2,700 structures, 86% of them residential. About 2,200 buildings were damaged or completely destroyed, according to data from the Pacific Disaster Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Wildfires are not normal in Hawai’i. Unlike many other regions in the United States, this isolated archipelago more than 2,000 miles away from the mainland evolved without wildfire to shape its island ecosystems. When there is fire, the native plant species are hit especially hard because they lack the adaptations to bounce back.
“The historical source of fire on the Hawaiian Islands was from the volcanoes,” Ellsworth said. On Maui, fire from lava flows is uncommon because there’s only one active volcano on the island: Haleakalā. “There was no need for the native plants to evolve adaptations to fire because it wasn’t something that they experienced,” Ellsworth said.
But now, native plants are being exposed to fire much more often because of the number of people living on and traveling to Hawai’i (98% of the state’s wildfires are human-ignited, according to the Hawai’i Wildfire Management Organization). Warmer and drier conditions caused by climate change make those fires burn bigger and faster.
And when those native plants burn, they’re not coming back: A 2011 study of a burned woodland ecosystem in Hawai’i found little to no native plant succession almost four decades post-fire. In the meantime, highly flammable non-native grasses dominated.
“So what’s happening in Hawai’i is paralleled all over the planet where we have places where invasive grass is replacing native ecosystems, and those invasive grasses are more flammable than the native plants that they replace,” Ellsworth said. “It creates this cycle of more fire.”
This can be particularly dangerous for the rural communities adjacent to these ecosystems. The wildland urban interface – the zone between a vegetated ecosystem and a populated area – is at higher wildfire risk because of the proximity of structures to vegetation that can burn. This zone played a part in some of the most devastating wildfires in recent years. Paradise, California; Greenville, California; and now Lāhainā, Hawai’i, were all small towns near large swaths of brush or trees that burned to the ground.
And in rural Hawai’i where emergency services are limited, this presents another challenge: getting help in time.
The Division of Forestry and Wildlife used to manage a network of district fire wardens across rural Hawai’i to respond to hard-to-get-to fires, according to the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources. Many of these wardens were also plantation and ranch personnel who farmed in rural places, but as agriculture declined – between 2015 and 2020, overall acreage of planted crops decreased by 21%, according to Hawai’i Department of Agriculture data – the number of rural fire wardens also decreased.
Now, mutual aid agreements are used between county, state and federal agencies to respond to Hawai’i’s wildfires. But this doesn’t come without its challenges.
“There historically has been some sticking points with, you know, whose fire is it?” Ellsworth said. “Who’s supposed to respond? Are there different policies?” Coordinating a unified fire response can be extremely difficult across jurisdictions.
In Lāhainā, resources were already stretched thin as firefighters from stations across Maui responded to two other fires on August 8. The Maui Fire Department has previously stated that the four minute response time set by the National Fire Protection Association is unrealistic in Hawai’i where mountains, unpopulated land, ocean channels and limited roads increase travel time drastically. The department has been accused of failing to warn Lāhainā residents of the fire in a timely manner, according to reporting from Honolulu Civil Beat. Power and cellular outages added to the communications challenge.
One week out from the fire, Maui residents are just starting to piece back together life as they knew it. Several community groups have sprung up to help, as well as aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“What we’ve heard over and over and over is that it’s the local, community-based organizations that are most effective,” Ellsworth said. She’s worked with wildfire-impacted communities from Paradise and Santa Rosa, California.
“The more that we can put resources in the hands of the community and these community organizations that are already interfacing with the public, the more successful the efforts have been.”
If you were affected by the Maui fires, apply for federal disaster assistance here.