Wildfires Burning in Hawaii, Fanned by Intense Winds, Force Evacuations
August 9, 2023
Source: The Washington Post
Several large wildfires raging on two of Hawaii’s islands are expected to cause “some of loss of life,” the governor said Wednesday.
The blazes have destroyed much of the popular tourist town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, and hundreds of families have been displaced, Gov. Josh Green (D) said. The fires caused mass evacuations, widespread power outages and structural damage on the island.
Dry conditions and forceful winds connected to Hurricane Dora also ignited fires on the island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island. Officials warned residents of possible “imminent disaster due to property damage and/or bodily injury.”
Green, who is out of state on personal travel, addressed the crisis in a statement Wednesday. His office said he was returning to Hawaii “immediately.” On Tuesday, Sylvia Luke (D), who is serving as acting governor, declared an emergency relief period through at least Aug. 15 and activated the Hawaii National Guard to help with evacuation efforts and disaster response. The fires have destroyed hundreds of acres in regions including Kula, North Kohala and South Kohala.
“The wind-fueled fires have devastated many of our communities and people will be looking to our office for leadership while we address the ongoing emergency and do what we can as a state to rebuild lives,” Green said in a statement.
Active fires in last 48 hours (Aug. 8-9)
The state government plans to request a disaster declaration from the White House, which Green said had been supportive. FEMA is helping in the response effort.
Months of drought primed the islands for fire risks, with more than a third of Maui County under at least moderate drought as of Aug. 1, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Abnormally dry conditions developed rapidly there in June and have persisted, with slightly below-normal precipitation during what is a typically dry time of year.
Weather patterns have allowed fires to spread quickly. A strong high-pressure system north of the islands is keeping conditions dry and sunny, and tradewinds have intensified as Category 4 Dora passes hundreds of miles to the south. The difference between that high pressure zone and Dora’s low pressure has fueled damaging winds, the National Weather Service said.
The agency posted high-wind warnings of gusts up to 60 mph for portions of Maui on Tuesday. The warning was downgraded to an advisory on Wednesday morning as winds began to ease; only a few locations were reporting gusts over 50 mph, the Weather Service said.
Winds are expected to continue easing Wednesday and in the coming days as Dora moves westward away from Hawaii, the Weather Service said, but beneficial rain is not expected.
“Dry and stable conditions will persist today with near zero rainfall in the forecast for most locations,” Weather Service meteorologists wrote in a forecast discussion Wednesday morning.
Across the island, more than 14,000 customers lost power. People trying to drive to safety posted on Twitter, recently renamed X, that they were hampered by long traffic delays and road closures. The National Weather Service warned residents to expect “difficult travel.”
Videos shared to social media Wednesday showed flames engulfing the streets of Lahaina, which has about 13,000 residents. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 12 people who had fled into the ocean to avoid smoke and flames. In West Maui, 911 service was unavailable.
Kahului Airport, Maui’s main airport, was sheltering 2,000 people from arrivals and canceled flights. Hawaii’s government discouraged nonessential air travel to the state.
Firefighters responding to the blazes faced strong winds, which officials said “made it impossible to provide aircraft support.” The winds prevented helicopters from dumping water onto the fires and gathering more information about the blazes, the Associated Press reported. A firefighter working in West Maui suffering from smoke inhalation and was taken to a hospital and was stable condition Tuesday, authorities said.
“It’s definitely one of the more challenging days for our island given that it’s multiple fires, multiple evacuations in the different district areas,” County of Maui spokeswoman Mahina Martin told the AP late Tuesday.
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen issued an emergency proclamation and said the area had suffered structural damage, though the extent was unclear. Several schools in Maui closed amid the strong winds, with officials citing “unsafe campus conditions and damage” caused by the brush fires and weather. The state’s Education Department said Wednesday that Maui High school would be used as an evacuation shelter.
Jennifer Lucander, whose Facebook page says she is from Massachusetts and is on vacation in Hawaii, wrote on the social media platform that she was forced to evacuate Lahaina as debris “was flying everywhere.” It was “the scariest thing,” she said.
“We are supposed to fly out at noon tomorrow … fingers crossed!” she wrote alongside images of thick smoke plumes rising above palm trees. “Praying for everyone in West Maui.”
Wildfires typically burn about 0.5 percent of Hawaii’s land area each year, according to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. The proportion is on par with, if not greater than, what is burned in other U.S. states, the nonprofit said.
While fires were once largely tied to volcanic eruptions and rare dry lightning strikes, they have become more common over the past century as humans have introduced more nonnative fire-prone grasses and shrubs and more sources of ignition, the wildfire management group said. Nonnative grasslands and shrub lands cover nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s total land area, and they are becoming more flammable as climate change brings warmer, drier conditions.
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