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Updated Aug 10, 2023, 11:09am EDT
net zeroNorth America

Why the Maui wildfires have been deadly this year

Hawaii National Guard/Handout via REUTERS
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The News

At least 36 people have died in the raging wildfires in Hawaii which started in the popular tourist town of Lahaina and spread to three other islands. Hundreds of families have been displaced and more than 11,000 visitors have been evacuated, officials said. Several people were rescued from the ocean after jumping in to escape the fires. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

We’ve curated reporting and analysis on what has led to this year’s particularly devastating wildfires.

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Insights

  • A combination of “strong winds, dry vegetation, and low humidity” likely caused the wildfires, said Robert Bohlin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Honolulu. Bohlin suggested that drought conditions have been exacerbated by “weaker-than-normal trade winds.” But a pressure difference in the island’s atmosphere, paired with Lahaina’s naturally rugged terrain, has caused winds to funnel and spread flames faster than usual. — Scientific American
  • Wildfires in Hawaii are burning through more than four times the number of acres than in previous decades, according to Clay Trauernicht, a tropical fire specialist at the University of Hawaii. The rise in wildfires, experts say, is because widespread nonnative grasses— common in Maui — are more flammable than indigenous plants. This type of rare vegetation paired with more frequent droughts and shifts in rainfall is likely to have caused the surge. — The New York Times
  • Once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Lahaina, a town of more than 13,000 is now “burned to the ground and charred,” said Bill Dorman, the news director of Hawaii Public Radio. Even though wildfires and hurricanes are part of Hawaii’s “seasonal realities,” Dorman said, the combination of the two is dangerous: Hurricane winds spread the fires while also drying out the atmosphere.
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