Hawaii Wildfires Impact on Climate Change

Discover the environmental impact of Hawaii wildfires on Maui Island

by Abdul Rauf
1 comment 7 mins read
Hawaii Wildfires

Ravaging Hawaii Wildfires Grip Maui Island in Early August 2023

In the initial days of August 2023, a devastating chain of wildfires ignited across the scenic expanse of Hawaii, primarily targeting the captivating Maui Island. The fierce and wind-propelled Hawaii Wildfires not only forced the urgent evacuation of residents but also left behind a trail of extensive destruction and an unfortunate death toll of no less than 93 individuals within the serene town of Lahaina.

These unforgiving flames have also left a distressing aftermath, with a staggering count of 1,000 people still unaccounted for, causing a harrowing sense of uncertainty across the region.

 

Where are the Hawaii wildfires having an impact?

Impact of Wildfires in Hawaii:

  • The ongoing devastating wildfires are affecting the picturesque island of Maui.
  • Specifically, two major areas on Maui are under the grasp of the blazing inferno: Lahaina and Kula.

1. Lahaina:

  • Lahaina is a unique blend of residential, tourist, and commercial spaces located in West Maui.
  • This coastal town boasts a rich history, dating back to the 1700s, and holds a place on the esteemed National Register of Historic Places.

2. Kula:

  • Kula, on the other hand, is situated inland, in the mountainous upcountry region of Maui.
  • It’s primarily a residential area offering serene mountain views and a tranquil atmosphere.

3. Broader Impact:

  • Expanding beyond Maui, even the expansive Big Island has not been spared from the flames.
  • As of August 10, NASA’s mapping indicates the presence of three distinct fires on the Big Island.
  • These fires are scorching through North Kohala and South Kohala regions, encompassing significant areas including the renowned Mauna Kea beach locality, as reported by Big Island Now.

 

Impact of wildfires

Impact of wildfires

When was the Hawaii wildfires begin?

1. Commencement of Hawaii Wildfires:

  • Reportedly began on Aug. 8.
  • Emergency proclamation issued by Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, acting on behalf of Gov. Josh Green, on the same day.

2. Purpose of Proclamation:

  • Activation of the National Guard.
  • Authorization of suitable emergency measures to address wildfires in Maui and Hawaii Counties.

3. Initial Impact:

  • Blaze had already consumed hundreds of acres.
  • Resulted in road and school closures, as well as evacuations in Kohala Ranch, Kula, and Lahaina areas.

4. Aug. 9 Update by Gov. Green:

  • Maintained constant communication with Lt. Gov. Luke and the White House.
  • Preparedness for an inevitable request for federal emergency assistance.

5. White House Support:

  • White House displayed strong support.
  • Anticipated submission of a Presidential Disaster Declaration request within the next 36 to 48 hours.

6. Expectations and Appreciation:

  • State thanked the mainland for the outpouring of concern and prayers.
  • Acknowledged the aloha spirit shared during this challenging time.

 

Reason Behind Devastating Hawaii Wildfires

1. Initial Blaze and Uncontrolled Spread

  • Ignition by a small forest fire
  • Unclear cause, possible link to arson
  • Rapid spread, aided by strong winds
  • Similar situation to wildfires on the Greek island of Rhodes
  • Fast spread led to panic and sea escapes

2. Influence of Hurricane Dora

  • Category four storm southwest of Hawaii
  • Suspected role in strong winds (100 km/h)
  • Differential air pressure causing powerful trade winds
  • Uncertainty about the direct hurricane-wind connection
  • Trade winds intensified by the West Maui mountains

3. Dry Season and Low Humidity

  • Hawaii in the dry season with minimal humidity
  • Usually tropical climates with gentle trade winds
  • The dry season starts in May, and rainfall decrease in June and July
  • Hot August and September, rare hurricanes
  • Dry vegetation, strong winds, and dry air raise the alarm

4. Impact of Dry Vegetation

  • Hawaii Wildfires caused by lightning, heat, or human actions
  • Exacerbated by invasive Guinea grass
  • Guinea grass grows up to 15 cm per day in the wet season
  • Can reach 3 meters in height
  • Dried-out grasslands create highly flammable conditions

 

Environmental Impact of Hawaii Wildfires on Maui Island

1. Drinking Water Contamination

  • Hawaii Wildfires pose a threat to private wells and water systems, including municipal ones.
  • Shallow private wells are vulnerable to fire’s effects.
  • Fire damage to distribution systems can impact municipal water supplies.
  • Reduced pressure can lead to contaminated water backflow, absorbing smoke, soot, and ash.
  • These contaminants can permeate materials like plastics and gaskets, rendering clean water unsafe.
  • Professor Andrew Whelton of Purdue University warns about the slow leaching of pollutants.

2. Landscape and Soil Consequences

  • Invasive, fire-prone grass species gradually replace native forests.
  • During fires, these grasses burn away native forests.
  • Soil burning causes significant post-fire erosion.
  • Eroded soil negatively impacts coral reefs, fisheries, and ocean water quality.
  • Long-lasting dust from eroded soil poses health risks.
  • Restoration and replanting after soil loss become challenging.
  • Invasive species tend to thrive in these altered environments.

3. Oceanic Impact

  • Land-based contaminants flow into the ocean, harming coral reefs and marine life.
  • The combustion of structures and vehicles concentrates synthetic materials in runoff.
  • Contaminant impact is more severe in areas close to the ocean.
  • Proximity to the coast increases the speed at which materials reach the sea.
  • Coral reefs are vital for coastal protection, fisheries, and cultural practices.
  • The loss of reefs has serious consequences for the entire ecosystem.
Hawaii Wildfires

Hawaii Wildfires

 

How Climate Change the Maui Blaze After Hawaii Wildfires

1. Escalating Heatwaves

  • Global temperatures have surged by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
  • This summer stands out for its scorching intensity, with last month setting a new record for worldwide heat.
  • Elevated temperatures parch vegetation, rendering it more susceptible to ignition.
  • Canada bore the brunt of extreme heatwaves, fueling unprecedented and early wildfires whose smoke infiltrated northern parts of the United States.
  • Europe and the Pacific Northwest faced similar infernos during past summers, a pattern continuing this year.

2. Parching Droughts

  • Escalating temperatures lead to heightened water evaporation, propelling the water cycle towards extremes: torrential rainfall and severe droughts.
  • A 23-year megadrought has rendered the Southwest drier than it has been in 1,200 years.
  • Europe, despite its reputation for rain, encountered a 500-year record-breaking drought.
  • Unexpectedly, the Northeast was gripped by severe droughts last year, followed by extreme rainfalls and above-average precipitation.
  • Uncharacteristically, Hawaii underwent a drought, intensifying wildfire concerns. Over a third of Maui now faces moderate to severe drought conditions.

3. Storms Amplified: Hurricanes’ Wrath

  • Studies affirm that climate change-induced warmer ocean waters contribute to fortified hurricanes.
  • Hurricane Dora, passing south of Hawaii recently, induced heightened air pressure differences, culminating in unusually potent trade winds.
  • Having remained a Category 4 hurricane for a remarkable 122 hours, Hurricane Dora established an unprecedented Pacific hurricane record.
  • Rising temperatures and dryness, coupled with potent winds, serve as a recipe for rapid wildfire expansion.

4. Human Impact: Unwanted Consequences

  • European settlers introduced fire-prone invasive grasses, now covering 26% of Hawaii.
  • These grasses thrive during the rainy season but rapidly desiccate in drought conditions, escalating fire risk.
  • Events marked by low relative humidity intensify the explosiveness of these dry fuels.
  • Urbanization and population growth have pushed forests and buildings into close proximity, amplifying the lethality of wildfires.

 

Emergency Measures and Response in Hawaii Wildfires

1. Lieutenant Governor’s Proclamation:

Acting Governor Sylvia Luke, substituting for Governor Josh Green during his absence, issued an emergency proclamation. The Hawaiʻi National Guard was activated in response.

2. Assistance and Deployment:

The Hawaii National Guard collaborated with the 25th Infantry Division from Schofield Barracks on Oʻahu. They deployed to Maui and Hawaii Island, aiding in fire suppression, search and rescue, and traffic control efforts. Additionally, UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters were dispatched to support firefighting endeavors.

3. Tourism Authority’s Request:

As of August 9, 2023, the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority urged non-essential visitors to Maui to depart the island. Further, non-essential travel to the island was strongly discouraged.

Hawaii Wildfires

Hawaii Wildfires

4. Federal Mobilization:

U.S. President Joe Biden initiated the mobilization of all available federal assets to combat the wildfires. The United States Navy Third Fleet and United States Coast Guard supported response and rescue efforts. The United States Marine Corps contributed Black Hawk helicopters for firefighting in Hawaiʻi County. The United States Department of Transportation collaborated with commercial airlines to evacuate tourists from Maui.

5. Navy and Coast Guard Support:

The United States Navy sent Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron Three Seven (HSM-37) and two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters to assist the Coast Guard’s search and rescue operation. The United States Indo-Pacific Command stood ready to provide additional aid.

6. Disaster Declaration:

President Biden granted Hawaii’s request for a major disaster declaration on August 10. This decision provided federal funding for recovery initiatives in the affected regions.

7. Urban Search and Rescue Deployment:

FEMA deployed Urban Search and Rescue Task Force personnel from different parts of the United States to Maui. Washington State Task Force 1 dispatched 45 specialists and a 5-member K-9 team. The K-9 team was comprised of FEMA-certified human remains detection dogs. Nevada Task Force 1 and California Urban Search and Rescue teams also joined the effort.

8. Access to West Maui:

After prioritizing emergency services, access to West Maui via Honoapiʻilani Highway was reopened on August 11 for residents with residency proof and visitors with hotel reservations. However, access was once again restricted due to safety concerns, and a limited reopening was allowed through Waiheʻe from the north.

Conclusion

Hawaii Wildfires encompass a range of factors, from natural triggers to human influence. The environmental and societal impacts of these fires highlight the urgent need for collaborative efforts in prevention, preparedness, and response. By understanding the reasons behind Hawaii wildfires, their environmental implications, and the ongoing response strategies, we can work towards preserving the beauty and vitality of these magnificent islands.

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1 comment

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