As the windswept fire invaded a historic town in Maui this week, a familiar and terrifying chain of events was set in motion.
Evacuations were chaotic as a storm of embers turned Lahaina into ash. Some ran for their lives, plunging into the harbor of the West Maui town, which has centuries of history and was once the royal residence of King Kamehameha. Others were trapped by an urban conflagration.
Survivors described frantic efforts to escape death in a town that had been cut off from telecommunications and electricity. One witness recalled encountering a line of burned vehicles, some with charred corpses inside.
Sources with knowledge of the fire told the Los Angeles Times that many of those killed are believed to have died in their vehicles. The death toll thus far is from the most urbanized areas, with some bodies recovered from the harbor as well. Communication breakdowns meant many people were told too late about the wall of flames racing toward them, the sources said.
“It looked like they were trying to get out, but were stuck in traffic,” Tiffany Kidder Winn told The Associated Press. The official death toll is expected to climb. Federal officials say there are nearly 1,000 people missing.
In interviews with The Associated Press, survivors described a frantic escape hampered by a lack of phone service and electricity. One retiree described learning of danger only when he smelled smoke and hid behind a seawall for hours; another fled with his brother on foot, running through the night into the next day, bypassing vehicles that were stuck on clogged roads.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. But the disaster comes amid years of evidence about the increased threat of wildfires to Hawaii — warnings that seem to have received little attention beyond some scientists and obscure county documents.
Maui County’s 1,044-page hazard mitigation plan lists coastal West Maui as having a high wildfire risk. A map on Page 503 shows all of Lahaina’s buildings as being in a wildfire risk area, and the document warns that “populations with limited access to information may not receive time-critical warning information to enable them to reach places of safety.”
Despite that, leaders expressed shock at the wildfire’s devastation.
“Nobody saw this coming,” Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said at a news conference late Thursday.
“We’ve never experienced a wildfire that affected a city like this before,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said. “We have experienced wildfires across the state. And they’ve been tragic, but usually tragic in open space.”
Wildfires are now threatening many more lives than they once did across the globe. California has been reeling from ever-more destructive fires that can give people precious little time to flee.
Climate change could be one contributing factor, with hotter weather drying out vegetation, which can then fuel brush fires.
But there is a host of other reasons for the increasing risk in Hawaii, including the spread of highly flammable, nonnative grasses left after property owners abandoned sugar cane or pineapple farms and ranches, said Clay Trauernicht, a fire scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The state’s last sugar plantation closed in 2016.
Nonnative grasses were brought to Hawaii to feed cattle when people of European ancestry arrived to the islands. Because they can quickly spread over abandoned farm and ranchland, they can build up to such high amounts of biomass that fire weather conditions “makes us so vulnerable,” Trauernicht said.
And more land is being burned each year. From the 1900s through the 1980s, an average of 5,000 acres statewide burned every year. Since then, 20,000 acres burn annually, Trauernicht said.
“We’ve experienced (fire) weather conditions in the past, but we haven’t had the same amount — quantity and extent — of these fuels due to that land abandonment,” Trauernicht said. “It’s not like that, all of a sudden, climate change flipped the switch. The switch got flipped because … we really walked away from managing these lands at a large scale.”
There are ways to help alleviate the fire fuel factor, such as working with ranchers to have livestock eat the nonnative grasses, reforesting areas or restoring wetland taro fields to establish fuel breaks, Trauernicht said.
Drought trends are also a factor in the fires. “We’ve been seeing increasing frequency of drought events, and much longer and more severe droughts, happening in the state of Hawaii,” said Laura Brewington, co- director of a climate research program in Hawaii called Pacific Research on Island Solutions for Adaptation.
Weather whiplash hasn’t helped. Last winter brought La Nina conditions, which generally means abundant rainfall for Hawaii. But that weather phenomenon has since transitioned into El Nino, which usually brings heat and wind, Brewington said, along with a pretty active hurricane season in the Pacific Ocean.
The sequence of a particularly bountiful wet season that allows grasses to grow, followed by a dry spell that desiccates them, results in a particularly high fuel load for fires, Brewington said.
More frequent wildfires also pose a permanent risk to Hawaii’s native forests, which risk irreversible changes. Fires are not a natural component of Hawaii’s ecosystem, as lightning is quite rare.
“So if we have a bad fire in a forest in Hawaii, the next thing that happens, usually, is that forest is gone forever,” Brewington said. “And it’s immediately replaced by these invasive grasses that are fire-prone. And it sort of creates this vicious cycle.”
Other factors also play a role, such as the apparent lack of a backup plan for what, in California, is now considered a predictable disaster: strong winds that knock out communication and electricity systems ahead of a fire ignition, leaving some with little or no warning before a wall of flames bears down on their doorstep.
Lahaina is especially vulnerable because of few exit routes. Hemmed in by the ocean and Mauna Kahalawai, or the West Maui Mountains, there are only two routes out of town along the coast. And both were jammed — one way out was closed because 29 power poles were down and still energized, and the other route is so narrow it’s one lane only in most places, Richard Bissen Jr., the mayor, said.
Lahaina’s geographic orientation also puts it at significant risk. With high pressure to the northeast and low pressure from Hurricane Dora far to the southwest — and because wind flows from areas of high to low pressure — Lahaina was arguably in the worst possible situation once a fire ignited.
The potential for high fire danger was well anticipated by the National Weather Service. Four days before multiple wildfires broke out Tuesday, the weather service in Honolulu warned of “high fire danger;” two days before the fire, the agency published an animation showing how damaging winds and fire weather were expected Monday through Wednesday.
Lahaina was in the direct line of downslope winds moving from the northeast to the southwest, what Southern Californians would call Santa Ana winds. As the air is forced to descend down the mountain slope, it increases speed, warms up, and dries out further, and “you get that trifecta of hot, dry and windy and downslope winds,” said University of California, Merced, climatologist John Abatzoglou.
In Lahaina, such winds would aim flames and embers from the mountains to the shoreline, leaving some people nowhere to flee except the harbor.
Hawaii faced similar weather conditions in 2018 that also was associated with wildfires. In that case, Hurricane Lane’s path triggered downslope winds, helping to fan wildfires in the state. But those blazes were nowhere near as destructive as this week’s catastrophe.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Hayley Smith, Paul Duginski and Jeremy Childs contributed to this report.