A wildfire is raging in West Maui, killing at least six people as of Wednesday evening, and forcing some to jump into the ocean to escape the fire and smoke.
The out-of-control brush fire is one of several that firefighters in Hawaii are battling, but a confluence of strong winds from Hurricane Dora, dry conditions, and low humidity are making the situation hard to manage.
The Hawaiian coast guard rescued about a dozen people who jumped into the water in the historic town of Lahaina which is a major tourist destination. Hospitals are also overwhelmed in Maui, while 911 service is down, as are phone lines, mobile connections, and internet connections.
We’ve curated reporting and insights on why the wildfire, which may be the worst in Hawaii’s recent history.
- Hawaii’s dry season is becoming more extensive as climate change progresses. Unlike the wildfires which burn in the continental U.S., the fires in Hawaii spread through grasslands and are usually small in size. The environmental impact could be significant: If this fire is followed by heavy rains, it will push soil into the ocean, which would smother nearby coral reefs which are crucial for food production and create barriers from deadly storm surges.
- Human factors are to blame for fires in the state, Clay Trauernicht with the University of Hawaii wrote in 2021. Human activities have created more flammable landscapes, he said, and almost all fires on Pacific islands are started by people. “This also means that forest-dwelling plants and animals of Pacific Islands, many of which are found nowhere else, are poorly adapted to fire,” he wrote. A Maui County report found that 75% of brush fires were started by people and were preventable.
- Island communities are especially vulnerable to threats from wildfires because they tend to be “clustered and dependent on single highways” which are usually located on the island edge, according to a 2021 Maui County report on wildfire prevention. Fire incursions can impact escape routes and evacuation locations for residents, as well as interrupt emergency vehicle responses, the report said.
As of Wednesday morning, no fire-related fatalities have been reported. Shelters have been established in the area, and the largest is housing some 1,000 residents. Speaking to NBC News, Maui County spokesperson Mahina Martin called the situation “unprecedented.”