While residents of Hawaii are well-acquainted with fleeing from tsunami waves, hurricane winds and volcanic ash, much of western Maui was caught off guard last week when a string of fatal fires tore through the island’s flammable foothills.
In the wake of the devastating blaze, wildfire experts are calling for the state and its denizens to take steps to better protect against similar disasters in the future.
“Over the last few years, the wildfire risk there has increased more quickly than then our ability to raise awareness throughout the population,” wildland fire consultant Pat Durland, who is also a board member Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization, told The Hill.
“One of the few good things that comes out of this, of course, is that maybe that will encourage folks to take action and realize that they have control,” Durland said.
The Maui wildfires are the deadliest to hit the country in more than century, and have wreaked widespread destruction on the island.
The Olinda, Kula, Lahaina and Pulehu/Kihei fires, all first reported on Aug. 8, were linked to at least 111 confirmed fatalities as of Thursday night, according to Maui County. As the blaze jumped from dry grasses to urban areas, much of the historic Lahaina was also destroyed. Officials warned that only 58 percent of the affected areas had been searched for missing individuals at that time.
But prior to the disaster’s outbreak, wildfire wasn’t considered the biggest threat to the state.
Far from Hawaii’s highest priority, it ranked tenth among statewide hazards in terms of vulnerability and risk in an emergency management plan published by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency in February 2022.
Above wildfire on the list were tsunami, hurricane, volcanic smog and lava, climate change and sea level rise, drought, earthquake, flood, high wind storms and landslides and rockfalls.
The emergency management assessment deemed people to be at low risk of wildfire hazard, while property, the environment and emergency management operations were at medium risk.
People, property, the environment and emergency management were all considered to be at a medium level of vulnerability.
Maui Emergency Management Agency administrator Herman Andaya, who resigned from his position on Thursday amid escalating criticism about his failure to activate the warning sirens as the blaze barreled into Maui, defended his decision at a press conference a day earlier, saying the sirens were primarily used during tsunamis. He said officials feared residents would react to the warning in a manner more suited to that kind of disaster, and put themselves in more danger.
“Had we sounded the siren that night, we were afraid people have gone mauka,” the former administrator said, using a Hawaiian word for “toward the mountains” or upland.
Evaluating the spectrum of possible climate-related disasters listed in the 2022 emergency management plan, Durland characterized wildfires as unique among the other events, as they are chemical reactions that can be controlled.
“We can’t change the path of a tornado, but we can manage the fuels … and change the path of a wildfire,” he said.
“This was not Mother Nature. This was human nature,” he added.
A 2021 threat and hazard assessment, also from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, identified wildfire as a secondary hazard — warning typhoons and hurricanes “may result in, or exacerbate, secondary hazards such as residential and wildland fires.”
“Downed power lines, high winds, use of candles for emergency lighting and improper use of generators are all risk factors during a storm,” the assessment stated.
For example, strong winds in the July 2021 Hurricane Makani knocked down electricity lines, igniting and fueling three big blazes in west Maui over 2,300 acres, according to the report.
Many experts blame a similar course of events for the past week’s blazes, reasoning that hurricane winds knocked down power lines, igniting fires that spread rampantly across dried out hillsides.
With Western Maui’s fire-prone ecology in mind, local government agencies in 2014 approved a Western Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan, written by members of the Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization.
The need for such a plan stemmed from the region’s geography of “steep slopes, rough terrain, strong trade winds, and a large percentage of highly ignitable invasive grasses,” according to an accompanying overview document.
“This, coupled with warm weather, recurring drought conditions, and a history of human-caused fire starts puts the area at increased risk of wildfire,” the overview stated.
Within the report were action items for the five years that followed, including the restoration of previously burned property and the installation of firebreaks and accompanying access roads.
While it is unclear how many of these items came to fruition, the Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization is now pushing for large-scale investments in measures aimed at reducing the region’s vulnerability.
An infrastructural overhaul, according to the organization, must include improved accessibility, new water infrastructure in undeveloped areas and fire-resistant building design.
Also important are landowner programs that focus on minimizing risk to property, as well as fuels management initiatives to bolster the health and resilience of natural resources, the group stated.
Other priorities highlighted by the organization include emergency response infrastructure, greater availability of equipment and better communication systems.
When rebuilding efforts commence in Western Maui, Durland, the wildland fire consultant, cautioned that such work should not be rushed, and should instead involve smart planning and incorporate sustainable materials.
Durland, who runs the Stone Creek Fire consultancy in Boise, Idaho, where he previously oversaw wildland fire mitigation for the National Interagency Fire Center, pointed out that in recent drone videos of the Lahaina region, certain structures — which he deemed “winners” — appear to have survived the blaze.
Rather than dissecting why one house burned and why its residents are digging for their wedding rings, he suggested talking “about why their neighbor’s house didn’t burn.”
Reiterating the fact that wildfire is a controllable chemical reaction, Durland urged officials to rebuild communities that are capable of withstanding ignition.
“We can plan, design, build and maintain communities and residence that resist ignition and when a wildfire comes up to them, it’s over — it stops,” he said.
Identifying places that can resist ignition is also critical to formulating evacuation plans, which fire science expert Jack Minassian declared that “every family should have.”
“Maybe shelter in place in a golf course. Golf courses, believe it or not, are really good safety zones,” said Minassian, an assistant professor at Hawaii Community College.
Because golf courses, as well as football fields, are usually well-watered and green, they tend to be “devoid of flammable fuels,” according to Minassian.
While warning systems do play a critical role during disasters, so, too, do anticipatory steps that can be taken at a household level, according to Durland.
Residents should be aware of the need to make decisions on their own when alert systems fail, he added.
“You can’t depend on everything working,” he said, noting that reverse 911 calls, for example, may not function. “Don’t be sitting around waiting for the 911 calls when you see your neighbor’s house burning.”
Residents can also take anticipatory measures to eliminate potential fuel for fires, Durland said.
In arid environments such as that of Western Maui, one of the most important steps homeowners can take to mitigate fire risk is to reduce their “ignition potential,” according to Durland.
“It’s those fine fuels around your house, it’s litter on your roof,” he said.
By eliminating such combustible resources, residents can increase the odds that their houses will survive a fire and also make their property safer for both themselves and for first responders, Durland explained.
But far less important than ridding neighborhoods of ignitable materials are investments in new air tankers and helicopter fleets, Durland contended. Because such vehicles can’t fly in heavy winds, they spend most of their time “sitting on the ground,” he explained.
“The machine is asking for more money and more funding for aircraft and firefighters,” he said, noting that Mother Nature has been winning a game against technology for years.
Minassian echoed these sentiments, stressing that “there are limits to what humans can do.”
“When you have those kind of winds, no matter what preparation you have, there’s no way you’re going to stop the fire, period,” Minassian said. “In fact, even with this Lahaina fire, the only thing that stopped it was it reached the ocean — it ran out of fuel.”
Ramping up equipment in Hawaii could also be impractical from a logistical point of view, since engines on, say, the Big Island, can’t just “drive over to help them out” in Maui, he continued.
Looking at wildfire spread as a preventable disaster, Durland criticized today’s predominant policy stance, which he described as “largely reactive.”
“If we really want to make a difference, we’re going to have to deal with these events smarter, rather than harder,” Durland said.
“And that means we’re going to have to start before the event,” he added.
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