What Caused the Maui Fires?

It took Joe Biden nearly two weeks to visit Hawaii to offer in-person condolences and support to the survivors of the horrific Maui wildfire. He evidently felt his time was better spent avoiding questions about the Maui wildfire during a beach vacation.

It seems almost as an afterthought, Biden committed federal support to helping Maui recover, telling Hawaii’s governor, that the state would “have everything it needs from the federal government.”

FEMA estimates that the recovery costs could top $5.5 billion before all is said and done. At present, it is offering $700 to each displaced resident who files for help, about 3,000 so far. So, the committed grand total of spending at present is $2,100,000. To put this in perspective, Biden has just requested that Congress grant an additional $24 billion in military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine on top of the nearly $77 billion he has already delivered. As is typical of the president, Biden is putting foreign countries first.

Then there is Hawaii’s Gov. Joshua Green (D), what a guy -- the perfect politician, a liar laying the blame for Maui’s devastation on climate change rather than where it belongs, largely on his administration’s and the government of Maui’s own inaction in the face of known wildfire threats.

On August 13, Green said that Maui’s destruction was due to climate change.

“That level of destruction, and a fire hurricane, something new to us in this age of global warming, was the ultimate reason that so many people perished.”

Green failed to explain how many lives the $100 million dollars he dedicated to fight climate change this year from the state’s budget surplus saved. In fact, it saved none, nor could it, because as even the mainstream media, after a few false starts, is now admitting, nature and human error, not climate change, is to blame for the desolation resulting from Maui’s wildfires.

The Hawaiian Islands have wet and dry seasons, and it is currently the dry season on Maui. Lahaina, the city suffering the brunt of the wildfire’s wrath, sits on the naturally drier side of the island due to the prevailing trade winds.

Fires require fuel, and big fires require large fuel loads. Maui had that in abundance, which allowed the wildfire to grow so quickly. This year’s dry season followed an unusually wet spring, which resulted in verdant growth of an invasive grass on the mountain slopes and valleys abutting Lahaina. Almost every story covering the wildfires mentions that after years of agricultural use, the land on the slopes and valleys surrounding Lahaina has been taken over by Guinea grass, a fast-growing, invasive plant.

Rather than keeping the fast-growing Guinea grass in check by regular mowing, or better still, removing and replacing with fire-resistant native grasses and plants, the Hawaiian government has allowed Guinea grass to take over large areas of the islands, including the mountain slopes abutting Lahaina.

Abby Frazier, a climatologist at Clark University told ABC News that “[t]he main factor driving the fires involved the invasive grasses that cover huge parts of Hawaii, which are extremely flammable.”

Then there was Hurricane Dora, a category four storm that had recently passed Hawaii, delivering strong winds of up to 62 miles per hour that drove the fires, once started, down the slopes with amazing speed.

Hot dry conditions, check. A large load of dry fuel, check. High winds, check. Now you just need an ignition source.

What sparked the fire has yet to be definitively determined, but something started it and when it did, the conditions were ripe for the devastation reported daily. That accounts for the formation of the fire and its ferocity, but not the human tragedy, the death toll.

That is all on the Hawaiian and Maui governments. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal among other news outlets detailed the fact that fire officials and the island’s electric utility had warned for more than a decade that the island was at extreme risk of wildfires due to fuel buildup, the naturally arid environment during the dry season, and high winds -- the very confluence of conditions responsible for the wildfires on Maui.

Despite the clear and present danger, and a recent increase in wildfires accompanying the spread of invasive grasses, the Hawaiian government ranked wildfire risk as “low.” Not so, said Nani Barretto, executive director of Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.

“Hawaii has a big wildfire problem. We are on par with the most fire-prone states in the western continental US,” Barretto said during a webinar in May. “The impacts of fire are broad and long-lasting… There is a lot we can do to prevent them.”

Yet the state and local governments did nothing. Why wasn’t the Hawaiian government prepared for this? Why did they not trigger their island-wide siren system to warn residents of the fire, allowing them time to escape the danger? Why were Maui’s fire hydrants empty?

Let’s hope real investigations take place, that the appropriate parties are identified and suffer the legal or political consequences of their actions or inaction, and that measures are taken to minimize the risk of such large, devastating wildfires striking Maui or other Hawaiian islands again in the future.

Climate change was not a significant factor in the Maui tragedy.

Ecologist Jim Steele was right when he wrote, “The Maui fire would have devastated Lahaina in a colder or warmer climate. It would have devastated Lahaina in high or low CO2 concentrations.”

People like Hawaiian Gov. Green who blame climate change for Maui’s raging fires and tragic, large loss of life are despicable: the worst kind of opportunists, grotesquely dancing on the smoldering bodies of those whose lives were lost, exploiting death to push a political agenda.

Had Green and Maui directed just a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars in resources devoted to studying and “fighting” climate change in recent years, the invasive grasses could have been cleared and replaced with native fire-resistant plants, the water supply filled, emergency plans put in place and drills undertaken, and emergency exit routes and plans developed. Any of these actions, or myriad dozens of others, would have done more to reduce the devastation and havoc wreaked on Maui, than lawsuits filed against oil companies, or money spent on wind and solar development.

Restrictions on fossil fuels don’t prevent wildfires or the devastation they can bring, however, direct action to reduce fuel loads and harden infrastructure do.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., (hsburnett@heartland.orgis the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at the Heartland Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization based in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Image: Forest and Kim Starr

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