Climate Change

Hawaii’s devastating wildfire is linked with climate change

Mitigating the impact of wildfires requires a multifaceted approach that involves prevention, preparedness, response and recovery strategies

By Mohd Amin Khan
Published: Wednesday 16 August 2023
Photo for representation from iStock

The United Nations Environment Programme has released a report in 2022 which states that by the end of this century, wildfire incidents will increase around 50 per cent, causing a huge loss of natural environment, human properties and lives. 

The historically rich Lahaina city of the US state of Hawaii experienced major wildfires on August 8-9, 2023, resulting in the destruction of both human life and natural environment.

Around 13,000 people have lost their residences as around 2,200 buildings were destroyed in the fire, 93 died and many got injured in wildfires in Lahaina and its surroundings. 

On the island of Maui, the extent of the tragedy was immense as the fires have now become the most lethal natural catastrophe in the history of Hawaii. The exact cause of the wildfire is still a mystery.

However, many climate scientists and fire ecologists are claiming that the wildfire has taken place because of the huge availability of fire fuel, which is majorly caused by the hot temperature, drought conditions and Hurricane Dora’s high-speed winds.

These conditions along with the geographical limitations of the location make the rescue and mitigation response a bit slow and complex, which increased the depletion of resources, human assets and lives.  

Among the various reasons for devastating wildfire across the world, human factors are prominent. According to the United States Forest Service, around 85 per cent forest fire or wildfire incidents are deliberately or indeliberately caused by humans. 

Natural causes account for fewer than 1 per cent of the wildfires on Hawaii and the rest happen due to human activities, according to Elizabeth Pickett, the co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. An analysis done by news agency Reuters showed a strong correlation between the wildfire incidents and the number of tourists visiting the islands.

The distance from the US mainland and geographical complexity of the islands made the disasters more severe because of delay in rescue and postfire response to reach on time. 

The Hawaii archipelago is going through a period of low rainfall and high temperature compared to the past decades, according to a scientific research on the region’s climate. These climatic changes triggered flash droughts in the islands.

Flash droughts refer to instances in which there is a swift depletion of moisture from the atmosphere and quick dryness in surface fuel load, which are creating the ideal condition and contributing to the acceleration of wildfires. 

According to Jason Otkin, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin, approximately 83 per cent of the island is experiencing abnormal dryness or falls within the categories of moderate to severe drought.

The most devastating wildfires typically arise amid drought conditions. When an area rapidly experiences drought, it extends the timeframe within which fires are more likely to take place.

Source: US Drought Monitoring Index

Hurricane Dora has also played  a very major role in the devastating pace of wildfire in Maui. High-speed wind transports the moisture away from the surface air and flammable materials on the ground.

After the fire ignites, strong and fast wind also spreads fire rapidly in the surrounding areas. The winds coming from the hurricane expanded the wildfire regime very quickly and resulted in a scorching environment.

The rapid and severe spread of the Maui wildfire, Pickett told BBC News, was fueled by invasive species or non-native grasses. Species such as the Guinea grass, which have proliferated in areas that were previously farms, supplied a significant amount of highly flammable material resulting in severe fires very quickly.  

Dry grasslands or leaves provide the combustible material necessary for ignition and the sustained burning of fires. As a result, they are more vulnerable to wildfires compared to other natural vegetation.

Way forward

Among the various contributors to the Lahaina wildfire, a significant factor stands out — the escalating impact of climate change, which has intensified remarkably in recent decades.

With the global increase in average temperatures, the atmosphere becomes warmer and rainfall irregular. The changes create favourable circumstances for the occurrence of cyclones, hurricanes, storms, heatwaves, droughts, heat islands, soil infertility, floods and wildfires globally. 

Consequently, it is imperative that we tackle climate change with utmost seriousness and motivate individuals to actively embrace a sustainable path, thereby curbing the potential for future calamities and the resulting losses.

Mitigating the impact of wildfires requires a multifaceted approach that involves prevention, preparedness, response and recovery strategies. The following are some proposed strategies to lessen future wildfire damage:

1. Climate Action: It is crucial that we address the issue of climate change with utmost importance and inspire people to enthusiastically adopt a sustainable trajectory. This will help reduce the risk of upcoming disasters and the consequent damage

2. Management of fire-prone vegetation to control burns and firebreaks by reducing the fuel load and highly combustible materials

3. When any disaster, particularly wildfires, happen at any location, first and foremost the vulnerable people of the community are affected the most. This includes children and elderly people. Therefore, they need special attention and consideration for avoiding and mitigating future fatalities and loss of lives 

4. Advanced technology for early wildfire spotting and monitoring of flash drought to minimise future wildfires should be adopted

5. Building codes and zoning regulations in fire-prone regions should be strengthened to enhance construction resilience against wildfires and restrict development in high-risk zones

6. Awareness campaigns and safe practices against wildfires are imperative

7. There is a strong need to settle effective evacuation plans and communication during and after such disasters

8. Proper consideration should be given to insurance incentives, rehabilitation and reforestation after fires

A majority of wildfires have been initiated by human activities and their related behaviours. So, it is imperative to closely monitor these actions and ensure that the local people and communities are informed about the negative consequences of such kinds of disasters. 

It is necessary to know that a single approach or corrective actions cannot completely reduce or mitigate the threat of wildfires. A combination of these strategies and efforts can significantly lessen their impact on communities and forest ecosystems. The participation from local communities and collaboration among various stakeholders has a very crucial role in effective wildfire mitigation.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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