Wildfires in Hawaii

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Despite lush landscapes and tropical paradise typically associated with the Hawaiian Islands, wildfires are a recurring problem that threatens both natural ecosystems and human communities. Hawaii, the only state that is an archipelago, consists of a series of volcanic islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

What causes wildfires in Hawaii?

The climate varies across the Hawaiian islands but includes both tropical rainforest areas and arid zones. Combined with seasonal variations and drought, other factors such as invasive grasses, volcanic activity, and human activity, can create conditions conducive to wildfires.

Natural factors that can cause wildfires in Hawaii

Natural factors such as lightning strikes and lava flows can cause wildfires. Dry conditions, especially in the leeward sides of the islands, contribute to the risk. Trade winds can exacerbate fires, spreading embers and causing wildfires to spread rapidly.

Human factors that can cause wildfires in Hawaii

Human activities such as arson, discarded cigarettes, power lines, and machinery sparks can also contribute to wildfires in Hawaii. Urban expansion into wildland areas increases the risks, as human activities are brought closer to fire-prone landscapes.

Lahaina wildfires

Maui, Hawaii’s second largest island, has been experiencing devastating wildfires that burned between August 8 and 9, 2023. The island’s ongoing drought combined with winds from nearby weather systems to set off wildfires that have consumed the historic town of Lahaina as well as an area northwest of Kihei.

Wind gusts ranging from 45 to 67 miles (72 to 107 kilometers) per hour were reported in the area by the National Weather Service. The high winds were believed to be in part due to the presence of Hurricane Dora passing south of Hawaii as a Category 4 storm.

The passing of Hurricane Dora is believed to have created a high pressure system between he storm and the island of Maui. Climatologists point to a similar high pressure condition created by Hurricane Lane in 2018 that similarly resulted in high winds fueling wildfires on Maui and O‘ahu.

Dry conditions from an ongoing drought on Maui increased the available fuel for wildfires that sparked up. High winds also enabled the rapid spread of structure-to-structure fires within the town of Lahaina.

This Landsat 8 image from August 8, 2023 shows the wildfire signatures burning in Lahaina and Kihei.

A purple gradient map of a section of Maui in Hawaii showing in bright orange areas where wildfires are burning.
Landsat 8 image showing fire signatures around Lahaina and Kihei. Image: August 8, 2023, NASA.

Lahaina before and after the August 2023 wildfires

Maui County officials have reported that were 55 fatalities and more than 1,000 structures burned as a result of this wildfire. As of August 10, 2023 officials were reporting that 80% of the fire was contained.

These before and satellite images of a section of Lahaina show just how widespread the fire’s destruction was. Very few buildings in Lahaina were unaffected by the August 2023 wildfire.

Before and after satellite imagery showing a burned area of Lahaina in Hawaii.
Before and after satellite imagery showing the widespread devastation caused by wildfires in August 2023 in Lahaina, Hawaii. Photos copyright: Satellite Imagery © Maxar Technologies Provided by European Space Imaging.

References

Henson, B., & Masters, J. (2023, August 11). What caused the deadly Hawai‘i wildfires? » Yale climate connections. Yale Climate Connections. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2023/08/what-caused-the-deadly-hawaii-wildfires/

Voiland, A., & Dauphin, L. (2023, August 10). Devastation in Maui. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/151688/devastation-in-maui

Nugent, A. D., Longman, R. J., Trauernicht, C., Lucas, M. P., Diaz, H. F., & Giambelluca, T. W. (2020). Fire and rain: the legacy of Hurricane Lane in Hawaiʻi. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society101(6), E954-E967. https://doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-19-0104.1

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