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Lahaina, Maui, Thursday, August 11, 2023 – Buildings still smolder days after a wildfire gutted downtown Lahaina. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Hawaii wildfires: why were they so deadly?

Hawaii wildfires: why were they so deadly?


The island of Maui has been devastated by the deadliest wildfires in the US in more than a century. What made them so destructive?

Last week, Lahaina, the oldest town on Maui, Hawaii’s second largest island, was engulfed by a wildfire that destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings. It has become the deadliest wildfire to hit the US in more than a century. Around 100 people have been confirmed dead so far, but many more are missing.

Early on Tuesday morning, residents of Lahaina reported a brushfire. By 10am that had been contained by firefighters but later that afternoon the fire sprang up again and it spread with devastating speed. 

A tragic set of circumstances seems to have caused the Lahaina fire to spread: a mixture of high winds, dry air and drought. Lahaina is on Maui’s western shore where mountains to the east cast a rain shadow, making it hotter and drier than other parts of the island. Drought has been affecting Maui this summer too: as of last week, 83 per cent of the island was either classified as “abnormally dry” or in drought. Meanwhile, climate change has made Hawaii roughly 1.5 degrees hotter over the last century. Warmer air and dry vegetation made fire more likely to catch quickly. 

As the fire spread, residents scrambled to leave Lahaina. Some families got stuck in traffic close to the town’s harbour and were forced to abandon their cars and wade into the sea to escape the approaching flames. 
Emergency services on Maui say they didn’t have time to activate the island’s system of outdoor warning sirens. Alerts were sent to people’s phones and through radio and TV stations, but the power was out for much of the day, and many residents said they didn’t get any warnings. If the alerts had got through some lives might have been saved, but instead some people didn’t realise what was happening until they could smell the smoke or see the flames.

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Ella Hill.