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Devastating Maui Wildfires Kill at Least 36 People, Destroy Historic City of Lahaina

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability by Martina Igini Americas Aug 11th 20232 mins
Devastating Maui Wildfires Kill at Least 36 People, Destroy Historic City of Lahaina

US President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration as the death toll from the Hawaiian island of Maui wildfires climbed to 36.

Devastating wildfires wreaked havoc on the west coast of the Hawaiian island of Maui on Tuesday and Wednesday, killing at least 36 people and prompting the evacuation of thousands of residents and tourists.

US President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration as evacuation centres across the island filled following one of the nation’s deadliest fires in decades. Fuelled by unusual weather conditions including low humidity and strong winds from distant hurricane Dora, flames engulfed the historic town of Lahaina – Maui’s largest tourist destination, destroying much of its homes, businesses, and the harbour. Some residents were forced to jump into the ocean to escape the smoke and flames, prompting the US Coast Guard to rescue them. 

“We just had the worst disaster I’ve ever seen. All of Lahaina is burnt to a crisp,” resident Mason Jarvi, who fled from the city, told Reuters. He described the event as an “apocalypse.”

A satellite image shows wildfires in Maui. Pic: European Union/Copernicus Sentinel

A satellite image shows wildfires in Maui. Photo: European Union/Copernicus Sentinel.

According to a statement issued by the White House, the US Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, and Navy Third Fleets were supporting local authorities’ efforts to evacuate residents and more than 11,000 tourists. Ed Sniffen of the Hawaii Department of Transportation said on Wednesday that airlines were dropping fares to allow people to get off the island through Maui’s fully operating airport.

“Our home is on fire right now. There needs to be more action and more investment,” Kaniela Ing, co-founder of the Native Hawaiian-focused organisation Our Hawaii and a seventh-generation Kānaka Maoli, or indigenous Hawaiian, told NBC. “People hit first and worse by the climate crisis tend to be Black, indigenous and low income. Yet we’re the keepers of the knowledge of how to build a society that wouldn’t cause ecological collapse and societal doom.”

According to the Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency, the fired had been largely contained, with the “Red Flag Warning” and “High Wind Advisory” canceled for all Hawaiian Islands by Wednesday.

Video shared by Maui Now on YouTube shows the fires and strong winds.

Although Maui generally enjoys wet and rainy weather conditions, climate change is having a negative impact on how often rainfall occurs, triggering rare drought conditions and water shortages. Over the last three decades, rainfall in Hawaii has decreased by 18%.

Declining rainfall and rising temperatures are behind the devastating wildfires wreaking havoc around the world this summer, from southern Europe to Canada. According to a study published in July in the journal Nature, nearly 22 million Americans found themselves living within 3 miles (5 kilometres) of a large wildfire over the past two decades. About 600,000 of them were directly exposed to the fire, with their homes inside the wildfire perimeter. 

You might also like: What’s Behind the Water Shortage in Hawaii?

Tagged: hawaii wildfires

About the Author

Martina Igini

Martina is the Managing Editor at Earth.Org. She holds two BA degrees, in Translation/Interpreting Studies and Journalism, and a MA in International Development from the University of Vienna. After working at the United Nations Global Communication Department in Vienna, she joined a newspaper in Italy as a reporter before moving to Hong Kong in 2020. Her interests include sustainability and the role of public policy in environmental protection with a focus on developing countries.

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