Hurricane-powered wildfires sweep across Maui

Drought conditions and 85 mph winds fan the flames that have killed at least 36 people.
Maxar satellite imagery on August 9, 2023 showing total destruction of the Lahaina square and outlets after the Lahaina Wildfire, with one building still actively burning.
Maxar satellite imagery on August 9, 2023 showing total destruction of the Lahaina square and outlets after the Lahaina Wildfire, with one building still actively burning. Satellite image (c) 2023 Maxar Technologies

UPDATE 9/18/23 07:40 AM: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the death toll.

Devastating wildfires in Maui have killed at least 97 people and injured dozens, as thousands of residents have been forced to flee. The fires took the island home to more than 160,000 residents by surprise and started spreading widely on Tuesday August 8. 

[Related: Clouds of wildfire smoke are toxic to humans and animals alike.]

According to the United States Drought Monitor, the 735 square mile island of Maui is in  a moderate drought covering over one-third of the island. Some parts of the island are seeing severe drought. In addition to the dry conditions, flames were spread by strong winds from Hurricane Dora. The Category 4 storm is churning more than 800 miles away from the island to the south, which is close enough to fan the flames.

“We don’t know what actually ignited the fires, but we were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that we were in a red flag situation — so that’s dry conditions for a long time, so the fuel, the trees and everything, was dry,” Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard, said at Wednesday’s briefing, according to CBS News. Those conditions and the low humidity and high winds, “set the conditions for the wildfires,” he said.

Crews battled blazes all over the island on Wednesday. Some adults and children attempted to flee into the ocean to escape, according to the Associated Press. The Coast Guard reported that it rescued 14 people (including two children) who jumped into the water to get away from the smoke and flames.

The flames destroyed the popular tourist destination Lahaina Town which dates to the 1700s. The town was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the area is steeped in Native Hawaiian history and culture. 

“People are worried about their loved ones, their homes, their businesses, their jobs,” David Aiona Chang, a Native Hawaiian and professor of history at the University of Minnesota, told NBC News. “So many of the disasters that hit Hawaii hit Native Hawaiians the hardest. It’s something that we are going to be dealing with for a long time.”

More than 11,000 people have already evacuated Maui. On Wednesday afternoon, local officials on the island urged visitors and residents to leave Lahaina and the island Maui “as soon as possible.” There is an ongoing mass bus evacuation underway, and seats are still available on flights off of the island.

As of Thursday morning, firefighters on Maui have used more than 150,000 gallons of water according to Maj. Gen. Hara. The helicopters used to battle the flames, but high winds of 85 miles per hour hampered these efforts. 

Human-caused climate change has exacerbated the dry and incredibly hot conditions that allow wildfires like the ones on Maui to ignite and spread.  

[Related: How to mask up to protect yourself from wildfire smoke.]

Erica Fleishman, the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University, told CNN that these wildfires are “unnerving.” While it is difficult to say if climate change can be linked to this specific event without a thorough analysis and review, Fleishman adds, scientists can break down the conditions that made these wildfires possible.  

“We can say there are conditions that are consistent with wildfire, wildfire size and expansion that are changing as climate changes,” Fleishman said. “And some of the things that we’re seeing with this wildfire in Maui are consistent with some of the trends that are known and projected as climate changes.”

Scientists are still trying to fully understand the bigger picture of how the climate crisis is affecting Hawaii, but the current drought is expected to get worse as temperatures increase. Extreme heat dries out vegetation on the island, which then fuels deadly wildfires.

President Joe Biden ordered all available federal resources and assets to help with the response. Former President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, prompted those who want to help with the relief efforts to donate to the Hawai’i Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund on social media.