Why Hawaii’s wildfires are so devastating — and ‘predictable’ (2023)


7 min



After winds from a 2018 hurricane helped fuel wildfires in Hawaii, researchers pored over scientific literature for examples of similar disasters. They found only two.

Now, wildfires fanned by winds connected to a hurricane have torched Hawaiian communities for a second time in five years. At least 55 people are dead in this fire outbreak, and the historic town of Lahaina has been all but leveled.

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Scientists and wildfire activists say a confluence of factors heightens fire risks in the Aloha State and could trigger more disasters if action isn’t urgently taken. The factors include the spread of flammable nonnative grasses across abandoned farm fields and a failure to manage the vegetation and harden communities against fire. In addition, changes in the climate are fueling stronger hurricanes and may be contributing to drier conditions in Hawaii.


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Live updates on Hawaiian wildfires

Wildfires across Hawaii have killed more than 50 people, displaced hundreds of families and trapped thousands of tourists. These maps show where the wildfires are burning. As blazes continue, follow live updates.

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Elizabeth Pickett, a co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, said that although this week’s fires caught many off guard, they should not have been a surprise, given all of those conditions. Despite its association with rainforests and waterfalls, Hawaii is a place that burns and is becoming more so.

“We haven’t all adjusted, but it’s predictable,” Pickett said.

Fires began spreading on Maui, Oahu and the Big Island on Tuesday as the National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings. Much of the state has been experiencing months of drought, and the conditions were considered “severe” in parts of Maui around Lahaina.

That meant that whatever sparked the fires lit up dried-out vegetation quickly. And the flames had strong winds to push them toward communities, in some cases sending residents fleeing into the ocean for safety.

Strong winds are common in Hawaii, even during typical summer weather often gusting up to 40 mph. But the breezes buffeting the islands and fanning the flames this week were severe as gusts reached 82 mph on the Big Island and Oahu, and 67 mph on Maui, according to Weather Service data.


Some Hawaii officials acknowledged Wednesday that the severity of the fire conditions caught the state by surprise.

“We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane, which did not make impact on our islands, would cause this type of wildfires,” said Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who served as acting governor while Gov. Josh Green (D) was away and preparing to return to Hawaii.

The winds, at least partly, were the product of a dramatic difference in air pressure between an area of high pressure over the North Pacific and the intense low pressure at the center of Hurricane Dora, which passed hundreds of miles south of the Hawaiian Islands on Tuesday. The greater the difference in pressure, the stronger the winds.

Some meteorologists have expressed doubt about the role Dora could have played from so far away, suggesting that the high-pressure system alone was enough to provide a strong fan for the flames. Alison Nugent, a University of Hawaii meteorologist who led the study of the 2018 hurricane and fires, said that even without Dora’s influence, the effect of normal winds, dry and racing down Hawaii’s mountain slopes, could have been enough to make flames rage. But she said Dora probably contributed to the intensity of the winds, to some degree.


Similar scenarios occurred in the two examples the researchers found: In 2007, an early-season tropical system fanned existing fires in Florida and Georgia. A decade later, fires across Portugal and Spain killed more than 30 people as a hurricane passed well offshore.

Nugent said it is safe to suspect future hurricanes — which rarely hit Hawaii directly, but often skirt it — could cause more damage.

“If in the future we have stronger storms, then we could expect stronger winds,” she said.

At the same time, some trends suggest that drought conditions will continue to coincide with hurricanes. The summer is both Hawaii’s dry season and hurricane season.

While there is not a clear link between human-caused climate change and drought in Hawaii, the overall trend in the region is declining precipitation and increasing numbers of consecutive dry days. Research has found that from 1920 to 2012, more than 90 percent of the state experienced drying trends and that no wet season has delivered above-normal precipitation since 2006; instead, there have been 10 drier-than-normal wet seasons in that span.


Scientists say there is no smoking gun linking climate change to those trends. Hawaii precipitation levels have been more closely linked to broader climate patterns such as El Niño, which developed in June and is known for bringing dry conditions to the islands.

Whether climate change may be affecting the frequency or the duration of El Niño is an open question for researchers. The last major El Niño occurred in 2015 and 2016, spurring major weather disasters around the world; climate forecasters say there is a 50 percent chance that the current El Niño episode becomes “strong” or “very strong.”

This year, the wet season brought below-normal precipitation to Hawaii, meaning that conditions already were unusually dry going into the summer, said Ian Morrison, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Honolulu.


As the landscape dried out, it intensified the fire threat posed by a Hawaii invader — nonnative fire-prone grasses that have spread in the islands.

As in much of Hawaii, native vegetation in Maui was replaced by plantations carved out for sugar cane and pineapple growing and for cattle grazing. In recent decades, those farming activities have been declining.

Nugent’s research found that before Hurricane Lane hit in 2018, Hawaii had experienced more than a 60 percent decline in the agricultural use of land previously devoted to farming and ranching. Much of that cleared and abandoned land became covered with vegetation such as guinea grass and fountain grass, which were introduced to the islands to cover pasture and as ornamental plants.

Both species are adapted to thrive after fire.

When they burn, what is known as the “grass-fire cycle” is accelerated: In the wake of a fire, the invasive grasses bounce back most easily, crowding out the regrowth of native species and creating more fuel for the next blaze.


“It’s like throwing a ton of weeds in your backyard and then planting a couple of really fragile plants,” said Lisa Ellsworth, an associate professor of fire ecology at Oregon State University who has studied the invasive grasses in Hawaii. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of more invasive grasses and more wildfire.”

Nonnative fire-prone grass and shrub lands accounted for more than 85 percent of the area burned during the Hurricane Lane-induced fires in 2018, researchers found. The fire management group estimates that such plants now cover about a quarter of Hawaii.

This vegetation often runs up against populated areas with valuable real estate, and little in the way of fire prevention strategy, such as defensible space around homes. Pickett said significant investments and new policies are needed for those communities to catch up with the fire risks they face.

Beyond the death and damage caused when those fires spread into communities, their effect on Hawaii’s landscape is lasting.


Unlike in the western United States, where moderate blazes can improve the health of forests, Hawaii’s ecosystems are not adapted to coexist with wildfire, said Melissa Chimera, the coordinator of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization’s Pacific Fire Exchange project.

Native flora that are burned do not regrow but are replaced by invasive plants. One fire in 2007 burned nearly all of the yellow hibiscus, Hawaii’s state flower, on Oahu, according to the Pacific Fire Exchange.

Eventual rains also can wash debris into the oceans and smother corals and ruin seawater quality.

“In terms of the ecology of the area, there is no upside to fire,” Chimera said. “There absolutely isn’t.”

Wildfires in Hawaii

What’s happening: More than 50 people have died in the wake of wildfires burning in Hawaii. Blazes are raging across Maui and have also been reported on the islands of Hawai’i and Oahu. Follow live updates.

How did the fires start? It’s still unclear exactly what triggered the wildfires across the islands, but the spread of flammable nonnative grasses combined with hurricane-stoked winds could have been factors. Here’s what we know about conditions in Hawaii.

What areas have been impacted? Fires are burning across multiple Hawaiian islands — these maps show where. The town of Lahaina on the island of Maui has suffered widespread damage, and historic landmarks across the island are in danger. These photos show the extent of the blaze.

Can I help? Thousands of residents and visitors have been forced to evacuate. Many organizations are accepting donations to help those affected by the wildfires, while airlines have started offering fares as low as $19 to get people off the island.

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Why Hawaii’s wildfires are so devastating — and ‘predictable’? ›

The factors include the spread of flammable nonnative grasses across abandoned farm fields and a failure to manage the vegetation and harden communities against fire. In addition, changes in the climate are fueling stronger hurricanes and may be contributing to drier conditions in Hawaii.

What is causing the Hawaii wildfires? ›

The wildfires were fanned by high winds in part from Hurricane Dora and fueled by drought conditions on the island. The cause of the wildfires is still under investigation. Power company Hawaiian Electric is facing multiple lawsuits alleging that downed power lines triggered the fires.

Are wildfires predictable? ›

Most currently used forest fire prediction systems rely on manually created features to make forecasts. These systems often experience several shortcomings, such as: Fire risk prediction depends on the complex relationship between existing vegetation, fuel load, and numerous weather and soil-related parameters.

How bad are the fires in Hawaii? ›

The devastating Maui wildfires have killed at least 99 people so far, and have burned more than 2,500 acres across historic towns like Lahaina, destroying homes and businesses in the region. It is now the deadliest wildfire incident in the U.S. in over a century, and the worst natural disaster in Hawaii's history.

What are some of the reasons why wildfires might be becoming more frequent and more intense? ›

Increasing severe heat and drought due to climate change can fuel wildfires. Hotter temperatures evaporate more moisture from soil and vegetation, drying out trees, shrubs and grasses and turning leaf litter and fallen branches into kindling.

Why does Hawaii have so many natural disasters? ›

Environmental factors like droughts and rising temperatures have made Hawaii's lush landscape more susceptible to disasters like the recent Maui wildfires. As each day passes, the toll from the Maui wildfires—already the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century—becomes increasingly devastating.

What is threatening the Hawaiian forests? ›

endangered in the world. Since the onset of human arrival, Hawai'i has lost almost half of its native forest cover. While the historical impacts from agriculture,grazing,logging, and development are responsible for much of this loss, the greater threat today is the destruction wrought by invasive plants and animals.

Why are wildfires unpredictable? ›

Wind not only moves wildfires across landscapes, but also supplies oxygen that can cause fires to grow swiftly. Wind also blows embers for miles, igniting new spot fires. Rain and high humidity can slow or extinguish fires, while storms can cause fire activity to increase or become completely unpredictable.

What is used to predict wildfires? ›

With information about weather, topography, drought conditions, and other factors, AI can predict the path a wildfire will take. There are simulation tools that can process a fire's magnitude, forecast its progress, and project the wildfire into a virtual reality simulation to assess possible fire suppression tactics.

Can a wildfire be prevented or predicted? ›

While it's not always possible to predict the precise trigger or spark for a fire event, wildfire risk can be estimated to some extent by understanding how climate, topography, weather, and land cover impact fire behavior and the likelihood of a fire spreading.

What is causing all the wildfires? ›

During the recent “hotter” drought, unusually warm temperatures intensified the effects of very low precipitation and snowpack, creating conditions for extreme, high severity wildfires that spread rapidly. Of the 20 largest fires in California's history, eight have occurred in the past three years (since 2017).

What is causing the increase in wildfires? ›

A 2021 study supported by NOAA concluded that climate change has been the main driver of the increase in fire weather in the western United States.

What is the cause of Hawaii's volcanic activity? ›

In areas where the plates come together, sometimes volcanoes will form. Volcanoes can also form in the middle of a plate, where magma rises upward until it erupts on the seafloor, at what is called a “hot spot.” The Hawaiian Islands were formed by such a hot spot occurring in the middle of the Pacific Plate.

Did Kilauea cause wildfires? ›

Lava has been starting fires since there was vegetation to light. Recent investigation into the past 1,500 years of Kilauea's eruptive history has uncovered evidence for a number of fires in the relatively dry area between the Hilina Pali Road and the Mauna Ulu lava flows.

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