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Climate

Your Biggest Questions About the Deadly Maui Fires, Answered

Here's what we know so far.

Hawaii wildfire devastation.
Heatmap Illustration/Maxar Technologies

“Unbelievable. This looks like Baghdad or something.”

The shocked voice in the viral flyover video of Lahaina, Hawaii, belongs to helicopter tour pilot Richard Olsten, who attempted on Wednesday to find the words to describe the devastating transformation of the land below. Grass fires that burned on the fringes of the western Maui town early Tuesday, and were initially believed to be contained, have been fanned by powerful winds toward populated areas, fueling a fast-moving conflagration that took both residents and rescue workers by surprise.

Aerial video shows wildfire devastation in Lahaina, Mauiwww.youtube.com

The fires have killed at least 93 people, although authorities caution that the toll could rise as search-and-rescue efforts are ongoing. Here’s what you need to know about the Maui fires.

How did the Maui fires start?

The cause of the fires is not known, although they appear to have originated as brush fires that did not draw much initial alarm. But high winds that NOAA and the National Weather Service attribute to Hurricane Dora, some 600 miles to the south, knocked out power on the island, grounded firefighting helicopters, and fanned deadly flare-ups that took residents by surprise.

Where specifically are the fires?

The location of the Maui fires.

NASA/FIRMS

The location of the fires as of August 10 at 12:30 PM ET are above. You can follow the location of the fires using NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) here. There are also a number of small fires burning on Hawaii’s Big Island.

How bad is the destruction?

More than 271 structures have been impacted, according to the Maui County website, and “thousands” of acres have burned. More than 11,000 tourists have been evacuated from Maui and some 2,100 residents are reportedly being housed in emergency shelters.

“Local people have lost everything,” Jimmy Tokioka, the director of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, told the press. “They’ve lost their house. They’ve lost their animals. It’s devastating.”

Lahaina, the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and a place of historic and cultural importance to Native Hawaiians, has been “wiped off the map,” witnesses say. A 150-year-old banyan tree, thought to be the oldest in the state, has been scorched by the fire but appears to still be standing.

With 93 dead, the fires are one of the deadliest natural disasters in Hawaii’s recorded history and one of the deadliest modern U.S. wildfires. Authorities have warned that the death toll could rise.

As of Thursday, helicopters have resumed water drops and at least 100 Maui firefighters are working around the clock to stop the fire.

What was it like to be there?

Horrifying. Survivors said they had little warning before the fire was upon them, with some being so taken by surprise that they had to jump into the ocean to escape the flames.

“While driving through the neighborhood, it looked like a war zone,” one Lahaina resident told USA Today of his escape. “Houses throughout that neighborhood were already on fire. I’m driving through the thickest black smoke, and I don’t know what’s on the other side or what’s in front of me.”

Another evacuee told Maui News she had no time to think through what to pack. “I grabbed some stuff, I put some clothes on, got some dog food. I have a giant tortoise. I couldn’t move him so I opened his gate so he could get out if he needed to,” she said.

“I was the last one off the dock when the firestorm came through the banyan tree and took everything with it,” another survivor recounted to the BBC. “And I just ran out to the beach and I ran south and I just helped everybody I could along the way.”

Are wildfires common in Hawaii?

Hawaii’s brush fires tend to be smaller than the forest fires in the Western United States, but the proliferation of non-native vegetation, which dries out and is particularly fire-prone, has fueled a rise in recent blazes, The Washington Post reports.

There has been a 400% increase in wildfires “over the past several decades” in Hawaii, according to a 2022 report by Hawaii Business Magazine. “From 1904 through the 1980s, [University of Hawaii at Mānoa botanist and fire scientist Clay Trauernicht] estimates that 5,000 acres on average burned each year in Hawaii. In the decades that followed, that number jumped to 20,000 acres burned.”

What role did climate change play in the Maui fires?

Though Hawaii is imagined to be lush, wet, and tropical, Maui is experiencing moderate to severe drought, which has dried out the non-native grasses that make particularly good wildfire fuel. And while it is tricky to link Hawaii’s current drought directly to climate change, drought conditions in the Pacific Islands are expected to continue to increase along with warming.

Stronger hurricanes are also more likely due to climate change, and it was the strong winds buffeting Maui that made the fires this week so destructive and fast-moving. “These kinds of climate change-related disasters are really beyond the scope of things that we’re used to dealing with,” University of British Columbia researcher Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz told The Associated Press. “It’s these kind of multiple, interactive challenges that really lead to a disaster.”

Should I cancel my trip to Hawaii?

The Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority has asked that “visitors who are on non-essential travel … leave Maui, and non-essential travel to Maui is strongly discouraged at this time.” If you have plans to travel to West Maui in the coming weeks, you are “encouraged to consider rescheduling [your] travel plans for a later time.”

This article was last updated on August 13 at 8:32 AM ET.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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