The dreadful scale of the loss of life on the Hawaiian island of Maui has emerged day by day, as search and rescue teams scour ash and rubble. But it is already clear that the wind-fuelled blaze which last week ripped through the historic town of Lahaina was the deadliest wildfire in the United States for more than 100 years.

Hundreds are still missing, and the sheer intensity of the fire means that the identification of bodies and the notification of relatives will be a difficult and slow process. The west Maui town itself, the former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, is a charred wasteland in which close to 3,000 structures were burned to the ground at terrifying speed.

Along with the grim process of recovering the dead, finding viable accommodation for the survivors is the immediate priority. In the weeks ahead, tourists will hopefully heed pleas from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and stay away from the rest of the island. Hotel space and Airbnb accommodation will be needed for first responders and evacuees, not holidaymakers. Reconstruction will then be a laborious process costing many billions of dollars.

Lessons will also need to be learned in the wake of the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history. As climate-related disasters become more frequent, more unpredictable and intensively destructive, a step change is needed in how governments and societies respond to the threat. In this regard, state authorities in Hawaii appear to have been badly behind the curve. An emergency management plan, published by state officials last year, identified tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic hazards as potentially deadly threats, but described the risk of wildfires to human life as “low”. That judgment now looks culpably complacent.

Record-breaking temperatures in recent years, combined with forest loss and abandoned farmland featuring more combustible non-native grasses, had turned parts of Maui into a virtual tinderbox. A previous report stated that a 2018 brush fire, which forced residents to evacuate homes and burned more than 2,000 acres of land, should be a “real world wake-up call”. As was the case in last week’s catastrophe, that blaze occurred in drought conditions, amid high winds from a hurricane traversing the Pacific Ocean. Yet when the worst came to pass in Lahaina, warning sirens failed to work and the island’s firefighting force was ill‑equipped and overstretched.

Hawaiian Electric, the utility which oversees electricity provision to the vast majority of Maui residents, also has questions to answer. The immediate cause of the fire is still under investigation. But in states such as California, where a catastrophic wildfire destroyed a mountain town in 2018, electricity is now cut off altogether to areas where wind risks triggering a conflagration. Hawaiian Electric has previously acknowledged the effectiveness of this precautionary approach. But it chose last week to keep power lines energised despite weather warnings, a decision which is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit.

Global heating has inaugurated an era of climatic instability and volatility. Proactively analysing and preparing for worst-case scenarios means acting to anticipate disasters that may not happen, and persuading the public that such caution is worth the cost – both financially and in terms of disruption. The rest of the world, not just Hawaii, needs to wake up to this new and deeply challenging reality.

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