Deadly Maui wildfires endager thousands

Sean Ngo ’24

In early August, Maui was hit by devastating wildfires, which destroyed thousands of buildings across the island. Over 100 people have lost their lives in what has been deemed the fifth-deadliest wildfire in recent American history and the deadliest in Maui’s history. How did this happen?

As early as August 7th, Maui experienced strong winds of up to 67 miles per hour, coupled with a severe drought. Even before the first fires broke out, the National Weather Service had warned that this combination of high winds and dry temperatures could potentially pose a massive threat of wildfires.

Just before 11 p.m., security footage at the Maui Bird Conservation Center captured a flash of light in the forest, likely caused by a fault in a power line, moments before the power shut down. Shortly after midnight, a brush fire, later known as the Upcountry Wildfire, was reported in the area, leading to the evacuation of residents.

On the very same evening, signals similar to those in the Upcountry Wildfire were observed from Whisker Labs’ electrical monitors, showing sharp drops in Hawaiian Electric’s grid in downtown Lahaina in West Maui. At 6:37 am the following morning, locals reported the first brush fire in Lahaina, and two minutes later, Whisker Labs stopped receiving any signals from their monitors. From there, everything began to spiral out of control.

Car burned in Lahaina, Hawaii – State Farm via Wikimedia Commons

Dozens of residents reported and recorded fallen power lines, smoke, and flames throughout Lahaina. At 9:00 a.m., the Maui government declared the Lahaina brush fires 100% contained, even though the fires would soon reignite in the afternoon. Winds across Maui began to intensify, and small flare-ups, like the one on Mill Street, would take over an hour to be reported by Maui officials. Many also reported cars exploding in the streets, and neighborhoods becoming engulfed in flames.

“From there, everything began to spiral out of control.”

As the day progressed, citizens evacuated, and traffic only grew worse. On many streets and highways like Hawaii Route 30, residents were trapped in their vehicles for hours, even as the fires consumed homes just blocks away. A few residents managed to avoid the flames by steering clear of traffic-dense areas like Front Street, while others were forced to jump into the ocean. Unfortunately, some residents, like Joe Schilling in a senior center on Lahainaluna Road, were unable to evacuate in time and went missing entirely.

By 5:59 p.m., the fires had escalated. Dozens of civilians had abandoned their vehicles to seek refuge at the harbor. One individual reported to ABC News that he “waited over five hours before being rescued, three of which were spent in the water.” The next morning, Hawaii Governor Josh Green stated that winds reaching over 80 miles per hour contributed to the fire spreading at a rate of a mile per minute. The following weeks were dedicated to the search for information and survivors within the burnt areas.

By August 10, the Lahaina fire was considered 80% contained, while the death toll had risen from six people in the evening to 55 people, a number expected to continue increasing. By August 13th, over 2,000 structures and more than 2,000 acres of land were reported damaged or destroyed by the fires across Maui, much of which was residential. After three weeks of searching and struggling, Governor Josh Green announced that 99% of the search area had been covered, but according to The New York Times, Green had “acknowledged that some of the deceased may never be found or identified.”

Even after Maui officials recently released a list of 388 people reported missing or dead with contact information, similar to the aftermath of Hurricane Catarina or the September 11th terrorist attacks, The New York Times stated that “it can take months or even years of forensic analysis and DNA testing to identify the deceased.”

“What is certain, however, is that Maui experienced intense weather conditions that made wildfires extremely prone to spreading.”

Hawaiian Electric had also been sued by Maui officials, claiming that poorly managed power lines were the cause of the fires, although the cause of the flames in Lahaina in the late afternoon remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Maui experienced intense weather conditions that made wildfires extremely prone to spreading.

The aftermath of the incident is far from pretty. Total damages were estimated at over five billion dollars, with some areas experiencing 96% of fire damage in residential areas. Many residents are currently living in hotels until the damages are addressed. Maui officials have provided limited information about some of the causes of the flames, but according to Elizabeth Pickett of the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, “All these things—they’re pieces. But it’s not telling the whole story of how it got so bad.”

Pickett goes on to say that it was not an issue of emergency management but rather a lack of resources. Maui only has around 60-70 firefighters in service at any given time, and given that Maui stretches over 700 square miles and the sheer scale of the fires, it was impossible for such a small force to do much as the fires erupted. Even as conditions for wildfires worsened, Maui officials hardly addressed the wildfire danger beforehand.

The New York Times further reports that there was hardly an organized evacuation, with many residents not receiving emergency warnings. With power down in many areas and smoke too thick for people to see through, it quickly became impossible for people to evacuate safely. Interviews and stories from ABC News describe survivors extinguishing brush fires themselves or evacuating neighbors, with family members vanishing and not reappearing for days. The fires had disrupted electrical and communication lines, and before anyone could get in touch with each other, the fire had engulfed Maui.

Most egregiously, there were no warning sirens sounded, despite having sirens available from Hawaii’s “all-hazards warning system.” One official in charge of the sirens stated that the sirens were primarily used for tsunamis and that if the sirens had been activated, locals might have fled inland. Regardless, the official faced widespread criticism from Maui residents and later stepped down due to health issues.

“Even a small fire can turn deadly, like it did for Maui.”

The incident was an incredible tragedy, but in some ways, it cannot be called unexpected. Many factors within Maui’s emergency management contributed to the wildfire chaos, and even now, Maui is struggling to recover. One can only wonder how much damage could have been prevented with more caution and foresight from Maui officials.

It’s difficult to predict what will happen to Maui in the future, but for now, we must hope for the safety and well-being of Maui residents and hope that greater caution is exercised in the future. Tragedies like these should serve as a warning to any community to be cautious and deliberate with the way we protect ourselves, and not just in natural disasters. Rapid communication to the community at large is a must, and the community must be informed on what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency. Even a small fire can turn deadly, like it did for Maui.