Wildfires in Maui destroy the livelihoods of locals. PHOTO: The New York Times

Hundreds of people are still missing and at least 115 people have died as a result of the horrific wildfires that tore across the Hawaiian island of Maui. The deadly flames, which have now spread throughout three of Hawaii’s islands, forced locals to seek emergency shelter and drove tourists off the islands. This disaster is now the worst wildfire to strike the US in over a century, but how did it even start in the first place?

August is part of Hawaii’s traditional dry season, during which the various parts of the island experiences abnormally severe droughts. Although some wildfires have occurred on the islands in the past, the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization (HWMO) claims that over the past century, the frequency of fires has increased significantly as a result of human activities and an increase in invasive, combustible grasses. The invasive grasses, which became tall during the wet season, dried out rapidly during the dry season. The combination of the drought-like conditions and the withered vegetation created the ideal conditions for wildfires. “Nonnative grasslands and shrublands now cover nearly one-quarter of Hawaii’s total land area and, together with a warming, drying climate and year-round fire season, greatly increase the incidence of larger fires,” the HWMO states in a factsheet.

However, Hurricane Dora, a Category 5 hurricane that is situated several hundred miles off the coast of Hawaii, may have contributed to the boom of wildfire conditions by generating strong winds. According to The Washington Post, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a red flag warning to the Hawaii National Guard due to the strong winds, low humidity, and drought. The largest electricity provider in Hawaii is currently under examination as concerns grow over whether it took adequate preparation to prevent a wildfire as the strong winds started to reach Maui last week.

As stated in The New York Times, lawyers for residents of Lahaina are suing Hawaiian Electric, arguing that the business should have turned off the electricity before the winds hit the area because its machinery wasn’t sufficiently durable to withstand the winds coming in across the island. Nearly a week after it started, state and local authorities have not yet identified the cause of the fire, but the surrounding conditions—old infrastructure, strong winds, and dry, easily flammable brush—were typical of other US regions where electrical equipment has been the cause of wildfires. Uprooting the lives of the locals on the island, this disaster has sparked rescue teams that are still working to recover persons unaccounted for in the wake of these fires.

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