Maybe it wasn’t the hurricane that blew up the Maui wildfires

Scientists have introduced a new theory for the cause of the Maui fires in August, and the theory casts doubt on previous assumptions that linked the wildfires to nearby Hurricane Dora. Weather models show the fires were actually blown by the same meteorological phenomenon that’s often behind California’s worst wildfires — a downslope windstorm (see Rattlesnake).

Nearly four months after the Lahaina Fire that devastated Maui — leaving 100 people dead and 6,000 still homeless — scientists have clarified a new theory; according to a report by the Daily Mail, video footage documenting the fire revealed a wind-driven firestorm, but the power outages during the firestorm left scientists uncertain about which factors had caused the fire behavior.

Atmospheric researchers have now simulated the weather and fire trends in western Maui. In Lahaina, the main cause of the fires was a strong high-pressure system north of Hawai’i that intensified the easterly tradewinds, and when those winds ran up against the slopes in West Maui, the speed increased as the winds blew downhill. When they hit Lahaina they’d reached hurricane strength.

Simulations by the University of Nevada-Reno and the State University of New York at Buffalo showed that sustained winds in Lahaina on August 8 were nearly 80 mph with gusts exceeding 90 mph. Studies by the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington simulated similar wind speeds.

Cliff Mass, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington who simulated the Maui windstorm, said the combination of fuels, strong winds, and ignition sources is a common set-up for destructive wildfires.

“There’s a real story for Californians here because what happened in Maui, what happened in the Marshall Fire, what happened at Paradise … they’re all the same thing,” Mass told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Chronicle reported that videos from Lahaina showed a wind-driven fire, but that because weather stations in the area had lost power during the fire, researchers could not be certain about exactly which factors had  combined to create the firestorm. Many had initially attributed the disaster to Hurricane Dora near the island.

Below is a  forecast vertical cross-section of the situation on the island at about 11 a.m. Hawaii time. Cliff Mass explains that winds are shown by the color shading and arrows.  “The solid lines are potential temperature. An extraordinarily high amplitude wave had formed, with air descending the western side of  the Maui Mountains, accelerating as it plummeted toward Lahaina. At low elevations, the flow abruptly ascended, in a feature often termed a hydraulic jump.”
Cliff Mass illustration -- Maui Mountains
Cliff Mass illustration — Maui Mountains

He said the Lahaina situation involved a wet winter, followed by a dry summer, causing grasses to grow exceptionally in the spring to create a  dense fuel load, ready to burn.

Nearly 6,200 people still struggle to find housing while residents and their beloved Maui town of Lahaina works to rebuild.

~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Jim. 

Lahaina reopens to residents

The heart of the historic town of Lahaina that burned in a deadly August wildfire that killed at least 100 people on the Hawaiian island of Maui is reopening to residents and business owners holding day passes, according to an Associated Press story, and the renewed access marks a big milestone for the victims of the fires. Safely clearing properties and rebuilding will still take a long time, and residents are worried about where on the island the remaining fire debris will be discarded.

Banyan Tree Park, home to a treasured 150-year-old Banyan tree that burned in the fire but is now producing new sprouts, is re-opened, along with the public library, an elementary school, and some restaurants.

Maui air quality map
Maui air quality map

The state Department of Health has confirmed that the ash and dust left by the fire is toxic — and that arsenic is the biggest concern. Arsenic is a heavy metal that adheres to wildfire dust and ash and can be harmful. Samples collected in early November from dozens of sites on the island also showed high levels of lead, commonly used in house paint for buildings constructed before 1978.

The federal EPA is removing risks such as batteries, pesticides, propane tanks, and other hazards and chemicals from local buildings. Residents and property owners can visit their sites after the EPA has cleared them. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hauling debris to a landfill after property owners grant permission, using lined dumpsters that are then wrapped and sealed before they are dumped at the landfill.

Maui air quality map
Maui air quality map

The EPA and the state health department have installed dozens of air monitors in Lahaina and upcountry Maui, where another fire burned in early August. The FIRE AND SMOKE MAP is online; residents snd visitors are advised to avoid outdoor activity during times of elevated air pollution.

Maui agencies stall investigators

The Honolulu Civil Beat has reported that three county agencies on the island of Maui have been subpoenaed by the state attorney general’s office after failing to provide information needed for the state investigation into the August wildfires.

The hurricane-driven Maui firestorm was the worst fire disaster in the U.S. in over a century; the New York Times reported on August 13 that fatalities resulting from the Maui fires had surpassed that of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California; it was the deadliest wildfire since the 1918 Cloquet inferno in Minnesota killed hundreds of people. Both locals and experts were pleading with tourists from the U.S. mainland and elsewhere to cancel vacation plans and spare locals and emergency responders the drain on scarce resources. Hotels and other lodging options on Maui were scrambling to shelter evacuees and the suddenly homeless.

A local CBS affiliate reported that dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed on the western part of the island of Maui, the second largest and third most populated island in the state. HawaiiNewsNow reported that witnesses described apocalyptic scenes; residents said an overwhelmed fire force, fighting flames all day in powerful winds, could do little as flames ripped through and leveled most of the historic district of Lahaina.

Not quite four months later, the state investigation is focused on fire locations and a timeline of events, and it’s still lacking critical facts, according to the Fire Safety Research Institute, which was hired by the state’s attorney general. “Until that happens, this critical process cannot move forward,” said Attorney General Anne Lopez. Hawai'i Attorney General Anne LopezShe said some Maui agencies have cooperated with investigators, but that subpoenas were issued to the Maui Emergency Management Agency, the Maui Department of Public Works and the Maui Department of Water Supply. The Honolulu Civil Beat said it contacted all three agencies and got no response from any of them.

Mahina Martin with Mayor Richard Bissen’s office said the county has “cooperated fully” with the investigation but that the county has not shared everything investigators have requested. She explained that some items were submitted to investigators, about 20 more are pending, and another dozen require federal Department of Homeland Security clearance before they can be produced. She said investigators have finished more than 90 interviews of county personnel.

Civil Beat asked the attorney general’s office what information it is seeking through the subpoenas but they declined. In the aftermath of the historic fires, Civil Beat filed records requests with the Maui Emergency Management Agency — including text messages, emergency operations center activity logs, requests for assistance to the state and its continuity plan, and an outline of who is in charge if top leadership is absent, as was the case on August 8 when the fires started. MEMA has not provided any of these records.

A report by The Hill said the fires damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 structures and burned over 2,000 acres, according to FEMA records. The rebuilding could cost upward of $5 billion.

Other Maui agencies, meanwhile, have handed over requested information to investigators and the AG’s office. “We appreciate the cooperation of the Maui fire and police departments, and while we continue to work through some issues, their leaders and line responders have been transparent and cooperative,” Lopez said.

Wildfires burn tourist towns in more ways than one

Next month, West Maui will officially welcome back tourists to the island on the two-month anniversary of the devastating wildfires that left 97 dead.

On September 10 Hawai’i Governor Josh Green signed an emergency proclamation [ PDF ] that will end the area’s strong discouragement of travelers on October 8 — at least in part because the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimated that the island has lost more than $350 million since the fire.

The state, and numerous small businesses within it, massively depend on tourism. The University of Hawai’i estimated that roughly a quarter of the state’s economy is represented by tourism, including 216,000 jobs and yielding nearly $17.8 billion in tourist spending. Tourism generates an estimated 80 percent of Maui County’s economy specifically, and that’s not likely to increase with airlines still cutting flights to the island.

“Without this influx of cash, a distressing number of local businesses will certainly close for good,” according to the University of Hawai’i.

Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green's office.
Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green’s office.

The residents of Hawai’i have a love-hate relationship with tourists. While the industry may support a large chunk of the state’s economy, around two-thirds of residents hold anti-tourism sentiments, in part because Hawai’i is still struggling to reopen businesses that shuttered during the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of the contradictory messaging of the state being run for tourists at the expense of local people.

The complications in firefighters’ response to the wildfire disaster demonstrated some of these dynamics playing out in real-time. As firefighters tried to get to the fire and worked to contain it, hoses ran dry and state officials delayed releasing water from a nearby reservoir. In the weeks since, a centuries-old fight has rekindled between developers and Native Hawaiians over who owns Maui’s water.

Wildfires igniting already-present tensions between locals and tourists isn’t new, especially in communities that have come to rely on encouraging travel. A growing body of research has found that wildfires pose an “existential” threat to the tourism industry as a whole.

Greece and Italy fear a collapse of their entire tourism industry as wildfire and heat waves ravage the Mediterranean. Portugal’s tourism may be out $38 million annually by 2030 because of worsening wildland fires. Fires throughout California’s Sierra Nevada region have led to an increasingly damaging tourism image for the area as a whole.

Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green's office.
Maui fire aftermath, photo courtesy Governor Josh Green’s office.

Numerous studies point toward wildfires continuing to intensify and becoming more widespread unless emissions are reduced. As Maui continues its balancing act of catering to tourists while leaving its locals calling for a more diversified economy, it will also have to reckon with wildfires becoming a more common occurrence in its visitors’ vacations.

“I can say that if we support Maui’s economy and keep our people employed, they will heal faster and continue to be able to afford to live on Maui,” Green said in a recent press release. “The land of Lāhainā is reserved for its people as they return and rebuild.”