Large-scale wildfires have been sweeping the US state of Hawaii since Tuesday (August 9), with the death toll reaching 93 as of Sunday and is expected to rise in the coming days.
Widespread destruction has been witnessed in the form of downed power lines and more than 675 acres of land burned down. State Governor Josh Green said in a press conference that the town of Lahaina has suffered near-total damage. “Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down… without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina.”
Hawaii is an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean that is known for its picturesque natural beauty and is a famous tourist spot. The ongoing fires have particularly affected Maui island (located 167 km from the capital city of Honolulu) with significant damage to the town of Lahaina, a site of historical and cultural importance.
The extent of the fires likely had to do with the weather conditions prevailing in the state this summer. According to Associated Press, dry weather and strong winds from a passing hurricane were major contributors to the blaze.
It also highlighted Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan, last updated in 2020, and that it had identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfire ignitions and a large number of buildings were at risk of wildfire damage.
Additionally, West Maui was also identified as having populations who were more vulnerable to such conditions. For example, the region also has the highest rate of non-English speakers. “This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan noted.
Further, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub told Associated Press on Thursday that the department’s records don’t show that Maui’s warning sirens were triggered on Tuesday but the reason behind this is not known. Instead, the county used emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, Weintraub said.
Lahaina was the one-time capital of the former Hawaiian kingdom from 1820 to 1845. The town was once the royal residence of King Kamehameha, who unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the other islands’ chiefs.
Kings and queens are buried in the graveyard of the 200-year-old stone Wainee Church. Later named Waiola, the church that once sat up to 200 people was photographed apparently engulfed in flames this week.
Much of the historic Front Street is also believed to be damaged. It was home to restaurants, bars, stores and what is believed to be the United States’ largest banyan, a fig tree with aerial roots that grow out of branches and eventually reach the soil and become new trunks. It stretched to more than 60 feet (18 meters) and was anchored by multiple trunks, as is the case with older banyan trees. The tree was a sapling when it was planted in 1873, as a gift shipped from missionaries in India.
For Native Hawaiians, the town is a connection to their ancestors. Lahainaluna High School was where royalty and chiefs were educated, and also where Kamehameha and his Council of Chiefs drafted the first Declaration of Rights of the People and the Constitution for the Hawaiian Kingdom. The US annexed the kingdom in 1898.
The role of human factors – such as how the evacuation was carried out and whether it was done quickly enough – will be known as further details emerge in the next few days. However, the role of climate-related factors is being discussed at the moment.
It is being suggested that “flash droughts”, a scenario where there is rapid drying of moisture from the atmosphere, have aided the spread of the fires. According to AP, this week about 83% of the island is either abnormally dry or in moderate or severe drought. Jason Otkin, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told AP, “The most destructive fires usually occur during drought. If an area falls into drought quickly, that means there is a longer window of time for fires to occur.”
Elizabeth Pickett, the co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a nonprofit organisation, also told AP that previously, massive tracts of land were occupied by irrigated pineapples and sugar cane, and as those businesses declined and ceased, the lands were taken over by invasive, fire-prone grass species.“The problem is at such a large scale, 26% of our state is now invaded by these grasses,” she said on Thursday.
Even wind movements may have had a role to play. Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the islands this week, is adding to the low-pressure system and increasing the difference in air pressure to create “unusually strong trade winds,” said Genki Kino, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Honolulu. Hawaii’s state climatologist, Pao-Shin Chu, said he was caught off guard by the impact Dora had from roughly 500 miles (800 kilometres) away. “Hurricane Dora is very far away from Hawaii, but you still have this fire occurrence here. So this is something we didn’t expect to see,” he said.
Finally, climate change has been noted in the instances of increasing forest fires in recent years and Hawaii is likely no exception to this phenomenon. As mean temperatures rise everywhere, the air gets warmer, aiding the necessary conditions required for storms to occur.
(With AP inputs)