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In a report released by Hawaii officials last year, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic hazards were among the most likely natural disasters to affect state residents. A color-coded chart below shows the state emergency management agency’s range from wildfire risk to human life at low.
The fatalities of the devastating fires that swept through Maui and Lahaina this week have reached at least 93, making it the deadliest natural disaster in the state for over 60 years.
The state and local emergency planning documents reviewed by CNN reveal that Hawaii officials were not adequately prepared for the deadly wildfires, despite acknowledging their lack of necessary resources.
A report from Maui County in 2021 found that the cost of preventing wildfires was not justified despite an increase in acres. The report also highlighted a significant oversight in the county’s strategic plan by firefighters who were responsible for managing brush fires, which resulted in fewer acres and more deaths than anticipated.
The report recommended a comprehensive assessment of fire risks, but it was unclear whether officials followed through with this recommendation.
Hawaii National Guard CH47 Chinook helicopters are used to perform aerial water bucket drops on Maui in response to wildfires, as seen here on August 9, 2023.
Throughout the past five years, reports have indicated that authorities were aware of the possibility of fires being caused by hurricane-force winds, similar to those seen during the Lahaina blaze. One report indicates that first responders and firefighters are working too hard for emergencies occurring at or near shorelines due to Hurricane Dora’s powerful winds which still spread flames on the island.
The state emergency management agency’s public resources webpage provides bullet-point guidance on how to prepare for a hurricane, tsunami, flash flood, or earthquake, with two brief paragraphs about wildfires at the bottom of the page, without providing any similar advice on staying safe.
Hawaii and Maui County officials did not respond immediately to requests for comment on Friday due to ongoing disaster response efforts.
The state’s volcanic eruptions and lightning strikes were the primary reasons for fires throughout history, but a 2014 report by University of Hawaii researcher Clay Trauernicht found that the amount of burning area in the state has significantly increased in recent decades.
As Hurricane Lane approached Maui in August 2018, brush fires caused damage to over 2,000 acres and forced many residents to evacuate their homes. The storm should have been seen as a “real-world wakeup call,” according to ICE’s 2019 plan.
During the 2019 Hawaiian summer, Maui was hit by intense fires that caused damage to approximately 25,000 acres of former sugarcane land and dry brush.
A wildfire that started on a major Central Maui highway in Hawaii on July 11, 2019, is burning out. The fire was reported by Matthew Thayer/The MauI News/AP on Thursday.
The surge in fires is a result of Maui’s worsening drought conditions in recent years, as per federal data. Additionally, people have brought in new grass species and shrubs that serve as kindling materials in dry areas.
Abby Frazier, a climatologist at Clark University in Massachusetts, has been researching Hawaii and noted that the non-indigenous grasslands are extremely flammable, particularly during severe drought conditions.
According to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a non-profit organization, Hawaii state budgets for fire management have not kept up with the increasing risks.
Nani Barretto, an executive director for the group, stated during a May webinar that Hawaii is confronted with significant wildfire problems and shares the same level of fire risk as other western US states. He added that there are many ways to prevent these devastating disasters.
The 2021 report for Maui County proposed an aggressive plan to replace non-indigenous grass species that are flammable, but it is unclear whether local officials took action.
The challenges posed by climate change and natural disasters are not unique to Hawaii, as state officials across the nation are struggling to manage these threats. Furthermore, it is unclear how much more preparedness and mitigation measures could have prevented the devastation caused by the Lahaina wildfire.
Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke stated at a press conference on Wednesday that the state is used to dealing with rain and floods during hurricane preparations, as they never foresee wildfires like this one in the wild west of the United States when unforeseen events occur.
Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s former chief resilience officer, informed CNN that hurricanes and wildfires pose a “double whammy” to emergency responders.
He stated that the historical record was inaccurate as Lahaina had been standing for two centuries before the fires swept through.
The location of Maui, surrounded by sparsely populated mountains and grasslands, poses a significant fire risk due to its coastal towns. The Mauiliana County report highlights the vulnerability of island communities located along highways that make them vulnerable to wildfires.
The state must take additional steps to prevent a similar catastrophe from occurring again, as stated by Gov. Josh Green on Thursday.
“We’ll need to consider fire safety more closely during the rebuilding process,” he announced at a press conference.
The magnitude of the damage in Lahaina is a reminder that many parts of Hawaii are highly susceptible to wildfires, and that we need to take fire prevention more seriously.
She stated that it would take a considerable amount of time for people to forget about this.