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The Latest Dirt - Sept 2023

Living in Wildfire Country: Reflections on the Maui Fire

By Marilyn Saarni, UC Master Gardener 2017
Vice Chair West Contra Costa Fire Safe Council

The August 2023 Maui fire was devastating. As of September 8, 2023, the confirmed death toll is 115, and 66 people are still missing. Among the 55 names released of those who died, 22 were in their 70s, and another 13 were in their 60s, emphasizing the vulnerability of our elders in catastrophic wildfires like Maui’s. Over 2,200 structures were destroyed, 86% identified as homes. While insurers state that insured claims will be ~$3.5 billion, total community losses will likely be $5–6 billion.

Google Earth Map, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, USA—20°52’02”N, 156°40’27W. Retrieved 9/9/2023, one month after the Maui fire destroyed most of Lahaina.
Google Earth Map, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, USA—20°52’02”N, 156°40’27W. Retrieved 9/9/2023, one month after the Maui fire destroyed most of Lahaina.
Just why was this fire so devastating? Some of this will sound too familiar to us Californians who live in wildfire country. First, extreme winds were generated by tropical storm Dora nearly 300 miles offshore—30-40 mph, with up to 80 mph gusts. These turbulent conditions pushed embers quickly into the town of Lahaina. Second, the Hawaiian Electric utility company did not de-energize electrical lines, even after they knew power poles and energized power lines were already falling and in contact with the dry vegetation. Even with the lessons of PG&E, Southern California Edison, and other mainland utility companies, Hawaiian Electric has no policy to de-energize their power lines when weather conditions significantly increase the wildfire risk. And (familiar too) they had poor utility line maintenance practices, failing to replace rotting power poles and hardening power lines with “tree wire” that doesn’t cause fires when snapped from poles. Hawaiian Electric is now the subject of lawsuits and will likely declare bankruptcy (as did PG&E). Third, southwest Maui was suffering from a “flash drought,” where within just a few weeks the vegetation had dried out to dangerous levels—a parallel to, say, our wildfire season arriving in early May instead of late June, catching emergency responders and residents unprepared. Southwest Maui, where Lahaina is, is the driest section of Maui and has many abandoned farms that were taken over by invasive grasses, which created light, fast-burning fuel when fallen power lines sparked fires. Those turbulent winds, dry grasses, and seemingly multiple power line sparks starting spot fires created a chaotic, explosive, ember-driving situation, directing the fires along southwest-facing mountain slopes towards the old town of Lahaina.

© Hawaiian National Guard, cc 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/, Lahaina Fire recovery efforts, taken 8/16/2023.
© Hawaiian National Guard, cc 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/, Lahaina Fire recovery efforts, taken 8/16/2023.
An additional factor was the need for more firefighters on the island. There’s a total staffing of ~80 firefighters for three islands. At the time of the Maui fire, 45 active firefighters covered the entire island. Several spot fires (likely from utility lines) broke out all over the island, straining their resources too far. The assumed primary fire source leading to the Lahaina disaster (preliminary investigations identified so far at least two major fire sources) was put out initially by firefighters, but after a 10-hour watch to make sure the fire was “knocked down,” the watching firefighters were pulled to attend to mid-island fires because of staffing shortages. That small fire re-ignited and quickly grew to descend, out of control, onto the town of Lahaina, raining embers ahead of its front that rapidly traveled through those dry grass fields. This will sound only too familiar to those who recall the 1991 Oakland Fire when a similar incident occurred.

Also familiar was the power failures meant all water pumps stopped working, so the firefighters could not put fires anywhere. Emergency response staff had recommended filling up a reservoir for backup water sources uphill (gravity feed) a few weeks before the fire. Still, the County Counsel had yet to review the request.

In a sad parallel to the Paradise tragedy, most Lahaina residents and tourists had no warning that they needed to evacuate. Worse, there were only two evacuation routes. When the fire engulfed the first route, people tried to leave on the other evacuation route. Soon, that road also became blocked by embers, fallen power lines, and where people abandoned their cars and took to foot. People died in their cars and homes, as in Paradise. Early on, power failed, and cell towers stopped working. The cell towers had no battery backup to carry the cell warnings (a few people got text warnings just before the power failed). Sirens were not used because, on Maui, the sirens mean tsunami threat, and people would likely run right into the fires. There were no wildfire refuge sites where trapped people could seek shelter.

Unique to Lahaina, people sought refuge in the ocean—but this was very dangerous. Tropical storm Dora had generated chaotic, huge waves and currents along the shoreline. Many boats anchored out from the shore had embers rain upon them, and they caught fire, as did wooden decks and piers. Some people escaped along the shoreline’s edge to the northwest, but many died of smoke inhalation, even as they were in the water.

Also unique to Lahaina was the vulnerability of its historic and charming 19th-century wooden buildings, with the downtown massed structures succumbing to radiant heat once embers penetrated the buildings.

The people of Maui were aware of the wildfire danger. Red Flag days had been declared. Three prior annual reports by the Fire and Public Safety staff had urged several actions that governing bodies did not act upon—increasing firefighter staffing, filling a reservoir for backup water sources that would function through gravity feed, enforcing vegetation management on the abandoned farms, and improving evacuation route capacity. They planned to install camera fire watch systems like California’s CaliforniaAlert.org system. But with Hawaii’s many kinds of disaster risks (hurricane/tropical storm, volcanoes, lava, tsunami, earthquake), wildfire has been traditionally a lower priority.

They did improve their building code for both storm and wildfire resilience in 2020. What was striking is that the structures that had been built or remodeled since 2020 survived. That metal red-roofed home on the beach that you saw on the news broadcasts was remodeled in 2021, and the owners continued to maintain the vegetation so that they had clear, nonflammable zones around the entire house. Embers could not penetrate the shell of the house. This was also seen in Paradise, where there was no opportunity for the firefighters to control the fire: more homes built after 1998 and where flammable fuels were cleared around the structures survived, whereas nearly all the homes built before 1998 burned.

Lessons for us?

Landscaping for wildfire works! With home hardening to prevent embers from penetrating the structure shell, when you apply the Zone system, it will reduce the damage risk of your home in a wildfire. Having that Zone 0 (0-5 feet) around your house has a significant impact. And removing highly flammable massed plantings and sources that will explosively generate more embers and firebrands within Zones 1 and 2 (5- 30 and 30-100 feet, respectively) will also help.
Take action to reduce community-wide fire risk. Plan and practice evacuations. Both are critical to save lives and property. Let’s improve our county’s response in these areas. Many emergency response and firefighting agencies want to take action, and we can support them in joining practice evacuations. Measure X, which passed in 2020 with a strong majority, is an excellent start for assistance in reducing vegetation fuels for you and your neighbors (check out their Wildfire Mitigation Program). Neighbors can gather to help reduce flammable fuels together, and work out how to help vulnerable residents in case of evacuation.

Building and landscaping for resiliency and robust code enforcement matter. Both Paradise and the Maui Fires have proven that building and landscaping for resiliency in the face of wildfire, earthquake, extreme storms and other disasters can be highly effective in saving lives and property. This extends to resilient infrastructure as well. Let’s continue implementing resiliency into building, vegetation management and fire codes. And let’s help individuals to retrofit for wildfire resiliency, whether it’s learning and sharing best practices, doing the work together, or finding funding assistance for home hardening and expensive removal of dangerous trees.

Meanwhile, you can start with your own garden and home. Start by working out from your house and create your safe Zone 0. Firescaping is a different mindset, but as you learn what works, you can build a beautiful, sustainable, and yet lifesaving garden. And talk to your neighbors and consider starting a Firewise USA site.

Learn more about the Maui Fire and wildfire resiliency lessons for us all!