Wildfires have torched parts of Maui before, but never any as devastating as the ones that tore through Lahaina last week.?
Authorities are still working to understand what could have been done to better protect vulnerable communities across the island. But beyond questions about how the local emergency network performed, there are broader stakes for the entire world: Can emergency systems and infrastructure adequately handle the types of disasters that are becoming more frequent in a warming world?
What the situation on Maui laid bare was how different risks all amplified by climate change could converge with disastrous outcomes. In many ways, that confluence of extremes had until now been underestimated, even by climate scientists, said Laura Brewington, a research professor at Arizona State University’s Global Institute for Sustainability and Innovation and a co-director of the Pacific Research on Island Solutions for Adaptation program.
In a reality where climate change is intensifying wildfires, supercharging storms and fueling droughts, heat waves and floods, the very idea of how to stay safe from those kinds of extreme events is being turned on its head.
“What we’re seeing is something that was not predictable even 10 years ago with the best science that we had,” Brewington said.
The Maui fires were hardly alone in that regard. Heavy rains early this year in California tested the state’s levee system meant to handle its boom-bust water cycle. New York City was wholly unprepared for wildfire smoke that blanketed the region for days in June. Even places thought to be refuges from climate change have been shown to be vulnerable, such as the 1-in-1,000-year rain event that hit parts of Vermont last month.
The crises revealed an uncomfortable truth about the country’s ability to handle upticks in extreme weather events, said Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University.?
“We’ve been moored in resilience systems that just aren’t working anymore,” Fischhoff said. “Systems that sort of worked in the past are just stretched beyond their limits.”
Last week’s fires, which destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina, were worsened by severe drought conditions and high winds strengthened by Hurricane Dora, which passed over the central Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles south of the Hawaiian Islands. Recovery efforts are ongoing, but at least 106 people were killed, with hundreds more still missing.
Reports have surfaced that neither local nor state emergency warning sirens were activated Aug. 8 to alert residents as the brush fires rapidly spread, though it may still be days or weeks before a clearer picture emerges of what happened — and where things went wrong.
Wind gusts up to 80 mph were reported in some of the hardest-hit places on Maui, and the fastest-moving blazes were gaining ground at a mind-boggling pace of about a mile per minute, said Chip Fletcher, the interim dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“The intensity of this caught everybody by surprise,” he said. “I mean, it caught me by surprise, and I study climate change for a living.”
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissensaid little could be done against such an “impossible situation.”
“Everything happened so quickly,” he said Friday on NBC’s “TODAY” show.
Still, the catastrophic fires have renewed much-needed discussions about climate resilience, not just in Hawaii but also across the country, and indeed the world.
Maui’s wildfire risks — particularly for communities on the drier, leeward side of the island — were known. A 2014 report by the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization warned that Lahaina and other parts of West Maui faced an “extreme” level of risk from wildfires.
Awareness about individual hazards was well-studied, Brewington said, but the world has been confronted with “compounding impacts,” which tend to deepen existing vulnerabilities.
“You could have extreme heat, and that’s happening simultaneously with prolonged periods of drought, and then along comes a hurricane, and you have a bunch of invasive grasses that surrounds the city, and then boom, this incredibly unprecedented catastrophe occurs,” she said.
What too often results is a climate disaster that overburdens existing emergency management plans.
Building climate resilience in the future will need to consider how to protect communities against individual risks such as wildfires, sea-level rise, severe storms and extreme heat, but it also needs to take into account what could happen when those hazards converge.
Emergency management commissions should also be diverse and include experts from a variety of disciplines — climate scientists, ecologists, firefighters, meteorologists, people who work in public health and experts on the electricity grid, Fischhoff said.
People who belong to the communities most at risk should also have a seat at the table. In Maui, for instance, Native Hawaiians should be part of discussions of how to rebuild Lahaina and other badly damaged parts of the island, Fletcher said.
“If there is anything good we can do in the memory of the people that have been lost in Lahaina, it’s to use this opportunity to rebuild in a way so that the community will be much safer and more resilient to a world we have created that has become more dangerous,” he said.
Brewington added that discussions around climate resilience are as important as ever and need to happen in tandem with efforts that target the root cause of global warming.
“We all know that things are going to get worse before they get better,” Brewington said. “Even if we were to stop all climate emissions today, things like sea-level rise and glacial melt have already begun, and it’s unstoppable for decades into the future. So even if we were to walk away from climate emissions immediately, we would still see devastating existential crises across the planet.”