The Maui fires - Is climate change to blame?

Written by
February 22, 2024
4 min read

Last week devastating wildfires spread across the island of Maui, Hawaii killing 100 people with the numbers only rising as the search for survivors continues. This is the deadliest wildfire that the US has seen in over a century as over 2,500 acres of land was torched, including the historic town of Lahaina which holds particular significance for the residents as the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. 

The fire has left behind a trail of destruction and devastation impacting both the lives of the residents and the environment dramatically.

But what caused these fires, why is this the deadliest natural disaster Hawaii has ever seen and is climate change to blame? 

What caused the fires? 

While the exact cause of the fires is yet to be officially pinpointed experts believe that four factors came together, making the fires worse and more dangerous than ever before. 

Flash Droughts 

Droughts remove moisture from the air and soil, creating a cycle of increased heat and dryness that frequently results in wildfires as the dry forestation is vulnerable to even the smallest spark. The state has been affected by drought since early May, categorised as ‘abnormally dry’ since May 23rd. This prolonged period of drought made the vegetation more at risk of catching, which is exactly what happened when combined with the other three factors.

High winds 

The island was under high alert due to Hurricane Dora, a category 4 storm and it passed by the south of the islands early last week, fanning the early flames of the fire into the inferno that took days to contain. Whilst the hurricane did not come within 500 miles of the island, the pressure created by the hurricane certainly played a role in the fire as the fire was sustained by the wind. 

High temperatures 

The temperatures on the island were over 90 Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) at the start of the fire and this combined with the drought only dried out the vegetation even further making it more fire prone. 

Invasive grass 

The fires were also intensified by the presence of invasive grasses, such as guinea grass. These non-native grasses were introduced to the island years ago for livestock feed and aesthetics, but now they pose a dangerous threat due to their high flammability.

The combination of these conditions unfortunately created an environment extremely vulnerable to fires and whilst the exact trigger of the fire is yet to be announced a single spark in these circumstances can lead to an incredibly dangerous and rapid set of wildfires. 

Now that the causes of the fire have been explained, what role did climate change play in this disaster?

Climate change has led to global warming meaning that the average temperatures have risen across the globe. An increase in temperature leads to an increase in dryness and prolonged periods of dryness, as previously mentioned, lead to drought. 

Additionally, climate change increases the chances of hurricanes as warm ocean waters provide the heat and moisture that power the storm's development.

The parched grasslands of Maui combined with the intense hurricane winds were, in part, a result of climate change and therefore the climate crisis played an undeniable role in the catastrophe.

Although climate change cannot be held responsible for the growth of invasive grasses, the drought-parched the vegetation, turning it into a highly flammable tinderbox ready for wildfires.

The climate crisis undoubtedly exacerbated the conditions which led to the devastating wildfires which have tragically reshaped the island's landscape and its inhabitants' lives. As the community comes together to heal, rebuild, and strengthen its defences against future disasters, the fires serve as a poignant reminder of the impacts of climate change and the need to make significant environmental and ecological changes.

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Written by
February 22, 2024
4 min read