NewsNationalScripps News


A changing climate is working against emergency crews in Maui's fires

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the area was under a severe drought, which had worsened since the week prior.
A changing climate is working against emergency crews in Maui's fires
Posted at 7:49 PM, Aug 10, 2023

On Tuesday, Maui fire officials released information that an earlier brush fire in Lahaina, once thought to be contained, had flared back up.

"It all happened very quickly, we could smell smoke before it started, before we knew it power went out," said fire survivor, Dustin Kaleiopu.

That fire quickly grew, turning the beloved destination town into ruins. Communities and homes were destroyed, and many people were killed.

"There's three conditions that we got from the National Weather Service. They call it a red flag alert. So that's dry conditions, right? So you've got dry fuel, trees, plants, you've got low humidity and high winds," said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara of the Hawaii Army National Guard. 

SEE MORE: Airlines help more than 11,000 passengers escape Maui wildfires

Leading up to the Lahaina fires and the several other fires burning on Maui and the big island, conditions were stacked against them.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the area was under a severe, level 2 out of 4, drought, which had worsened since the week prior.

Adding to that were the winds, gusting as high as 85 miles-per-hour at some points, all due to Hurricane Dora, which was churning 800 miles south of the islands at the time.

According to a local fire scientist from the University of Hawaii, Clay Trauernicht, the state has a surplus of dried brush, a symptom of agriculture leaving Hawaii. 

"These spaces fill in with tons, literally tons of fuel. And these grassy fuels are highly sensitive to quick, quick drying out, and ... really easy to ignite," said Trauernicht.

SEE MORE: Maui fires damage historic banyan tree and Lahaina landmarks

The conditions show the fingerprints of climate change, researchers say.

Research published in 2015 showed average yearly rainfall at certain measuring sites in Hawaii has already declined by more than 30% in the traditional wet season.

Another study from the following year found rain totals for both wet and dry regions of the state will likely decrease through the end of the century, by as much as 60% in dry areas.

Hawaii's rainfall is affected by the historically wetter La Nina weather pattern, and the historically drier El Nino.

NOAA data shows that for decades less rain has been falling on Hawaii during La Nina conditions. At the same time, dry El Nino conditions have become more frequent. NOAA says greater areas tend to burn following such spells.

Rising global temperatures are expected to intensify heat waves, and put new stress on native Hawaiian plants, particularly at high elevations. This may increase the growth of drier invasive grass species, which have already contributed to faster-spreading fires there.

The effects of all of these changes aren't limited to Hawaii's islands, either. 

Cyclical El Nino and La Nina conditions influence rainfall totals and drought conditions nationwide

El Nino conditions arrived unusually early this year, forecasters say. When its timing is disrupted, it's harder for ecosystems and communities to recover from its cycles.

And research shows warmer climates are likely to promote the growth of invasive grasses, and their associated increased fire risk, nationwide.

Trending stories at