As of yesterday evening, 93 people have been confirmed dead as a result of wildfires in Maui County, Hawaii, The New York Times reports. The direct cause of the state’s deadliest wildfire in over a century is still under investigation, but fuel for the flames was provided by nonnative grasses on former sugar plantations left unmanaged by large corporations.
Yes many parts of Hawai'i are trending towards dryer conditions, BUT the fire problem is mostly attributable to the vast extents of nonnative grasslands left unmanaged by large landowners as we've entered a 'post-plantation era' starting around the 1990s https://t.co/j4HgpYH4QH
— Clay Trauernicht (@claytrau) August 10, 2023
Mr Trauernicht is a specialist in wildland fire science and management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Hawaii’s climate is mainly tropical, with heavy rains during much of the year. All that water can cause nonnative grasses, which have taken over plantations that once produced cash crops such as sugar, to grow as much as six inches daily. When the rains stop during the dry season, the grasses burn.
Each island in the archipelago has a windward side, the east and north, which tends to be cooler and moister than the leeward side, the west and south, which tends to be hot and dry, ideal for wildfires. Add to that the nonnative grasses, which grow quickly and burn readily, and wildfires are inevitable.
For example, Lahaina, which is on the west coast of Maui, was mostly destroyed in the fire. Invasive grasses cover the slopes above town there, growing right up to the edge of housing areas, The Times reported.
- guinea grass
- molasses grass
- buffel grass
In addition to the invasive grasses, which originate in Africa, nonnative trees brought to the islands to mitigate erosion, such as mesquite, wattles, and even conifers, have also taken over some areas, adding to the potential for fires that can spread rapidly without the native species that tend to result in more manageable fires.
The archipelago has also experienced a decrease in rainfall in recent decades, further bolstering the likelihood of destructive wildfires.
About 3,000 students and 300 school staff members have been affected by the fires in West Maui. One school was completely destroyed, King Kamehameha III Elementary, established in 1913, and no official damage estimates are in this soon after the fire ripped the region apart. School officials stress that the students and staff are their primary focus at these schools:
- King Kamehameha III Elementary
- Princess Nahienaena Elementary
- Lahaina Intermediate
- Lahainaluna High
The high school was actually shut down on August 8 due to a power outage caused by high winds, according to the school’s website. It was founded in 1831 as Lahainaluna Seminary by American missionaries with the intent of creating a high school to educate the greater population. This was made possible with the tract of land gifted to Lahainaluna by Chiefess Kalakua Hoapiliwahine.