Development, tourism and climate change: How humans made Maui’s catastrophic wildfires worse

Homes and buildings on the waterfront burned to the ground in Lahaina, destroyed by wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii.

Homes and buildings on the waterfront burned to the ground in Lahaina, destroyed by wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Hawaiian government officials are urging tourists to cancel or postpone imminent travel to the Hawaiian island of Maui in the wake of wildfires that have killed at least 96 people.

“In the weeks ahead, the collective resources and attention of the federal, state and county government, the West Maui community, and the travel industry must be focused on the recovery of residents who were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses,” the agency said in a statement late Saturday.

In the devastated town of Lahaina, toxic fumes and particles are still rampant, and even Lahaina residents are being urged to wait longer to return. Hawaii’s state toxicologist, Diana Felton, told Hawaii Public Radio the cleanup will take weeks or months before it is safe.

As of Monday morning, 46,000 people had flown out of West Maui since the fires began last Wednesday.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said 1,000 hotel rooms are being used to house residents who lost their homes and first responders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while some hotels will continue normal business to help sustain the local economy.

Tourism-related industries account for a majority of Maui’s private sector jobs, and some analysts are warning of a severe hit to the local economy — although experts say other tourist destinations have rebounded from natural disasters before.

The severity of the fires was caused by a number of factors, including strong winds from Hurricane Dora and dried-out vegetation that provided the fuel. Climate change and the importation of invasive, fire-prone trees and grasses played a part as well. But the fires and the devastation they wrought raise questions about whether Hawaii’s largest industry, the lifeblood of its economy, could also have contributed to the catastrophe by draining wetlands and drawing down the state’s water supply.

The root cause of the blaze

Volunteers load pallets of supplies and aid donations flown in from the Hawaiian island of Kauai into pickup trucks at the Kahului airport cargo terminal in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires.

Volunteers load pallets of supplies and aid donations flown in from the Hawaiian island of Kauai into pickup trucks at the Kahului airport cargo terminal in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Historically, massive wildfires were uncommon in Hawaii because of its humid, tropical climate. But this year, a local drought caused the foliage on Maui to become drier than usual. Invasive grasses covering former sugar plantations were especially dried out this year and fire-prone, the New York Times reported.

Before it was drained by plantation owners irrigating their farms, the Lahaina area was a wetland, according to the local environmental advocacy organization Save the Wetlands.

“Lahaina wasn’t always a dry, fire-prone region. It was very wet and lush, historically,” Kaniela Ing, an Indigenous Hawaiian who is national director of the Green New Deal Network, told the newsletter Heated.

More recently, wetlands have been paved over to build hotels and vacation homes.

“In the last 60 years, more than 100 acres of Kihei’s wetlands have been gobbled up, which exploded from a tiny rural town to one of Hawaii’s busiest tourist destinations over the course of a single lifetime,” the Honolulu Civil Beat reported in a June story on the island’s last remain wetland.

No water to put out the flames

A resident looks around a charred apartment complex in the aftermath of the Lahaina wildfire.

A resident looks around a charred apartment complex in the aftermath of the Lahaina wildfire. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images)

Firefighters found water pressure from hydrants too weak to extinguish the flames.

“There was just no water in the hydrants,” Keahi Ho, a firefighter who was on duty in Lahaina, told the New York Times. It’s unclear what caused the shortfall: Possible culprits include outages of power — which is needed to pump the water — caused by strong winds and leakage from pipes melting from the fire’s heat.

The Times also noted that Hawaii has been struggling with water scarcity, both acutely due to the current drought and in recent years generally, as rainfall has declined — possibly due to factors linked to climate change, such as thinner clouds caused by warmer temperatures and big storms moving northward.

Some environmentalists say that outsize demand from the tourism industry has worsened water scarcity.

Maui’s western coastline, where tourists cluster in beachfront hotels, receives less than 10 inches of water per year, but freshwater is diverted from the rainier inland areas to keep its manicured lawns “lush and green, with many pools, water slides and fountains,” the news outlet SFGate reported in late July.

Of the top 20 water consumers in Maui, 16 are hotels, time-shares and other short-term rentals.

“The fact is that the people where the water originates are hurting for water,” Lucienne de Naie, chairperson for the Sierra Club Maui Group, told SFGate. “There are definitely shortages of water from overtourism.”

A housing crisis

The Westin Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii. About 200 of the hotel's employees are living there with their families following wildfires that caused heavy damage in the area.

The Westin Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii. About 200 of the hotel’s employees are living there with their families following wildfires that caused heavy damage in the area. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The majority of wildfires in Hawaii are started by humans, and the New York Times noted that “Hawaii’s acute housing shortage, reflected in a large homeless population which often cooks food outside, increases the risks of more ignitions, researchers say.”

The housing shortage, and its related high costs, are reportedly caused by a growing population and regulatory restrictions on new development. The diversion of housing to use for tourists as short-term rentals also drives up prices, according to a recent study by the University of Hawaii.

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