The Lahaina fire was entirely predictable. In fact, it had been predicted to occur to one degree or another for quite some time. At least I and others have warned of a disaster ever since the sugarcane industry shut down and left the islands covered with massive fallow fields brimming with dry weeds and grasses every summer. Which is also the windiest part of the year.
What actually caused the disaster of Lahaina and the loss of so much precious life on Maui?
It is easily explainable without needing to resort to any type of speculative or unusual explanation. It is as simple as 1 + 1 + 1. Lots of dry kindling in a very dry place + unusually strong winds + without rain along with them.
First, we need to understand why a fire disaster was predicted and expected for a long time. And still is a major threat.
Shuttered plantations' fallow land poses huge risk of fires
For several decades this has been a burning issue in Hawaii as the demise of plantation agriculture has given rise to…
The above article is from 2019:
For several decades this has been a burning issue in Hawaii as the demise of plantation agriculture has given rise to increasingly frequent and big wildfires on fallow farmland where grasses, haole koa and other easily burned vegetation supplanted sugar cane, pineapple and cattle ranching pastures.
So it was no surprise to local fire experts that the closure almost three years ago of what had long been the largest sugar cane plantation in the state would be followed by a giant, out-of-control blaze.
“It was just a matter of time,” said Clay Trauernicht, wildland fire specialist at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “It was not if it was going to happen. It was when.”
Not that long ago if you visited Hawaii you would have noticed the vast fields of sugarcane and pineapples. Hawaii’s countryside was famous for both. If you went anywhere that wasn’t mountainous, too rocky, or in a town, fields of sugarcane or pineapple covered every square inch of arable land — except for cattle ranches and a small amount of other produce. The plantation owners had bought up all the arable land in Hawaii long before it became the tourist destination it became. So, we ended up with islands where outside of non-arable areas and cities, the land was mostly covered with sugarcane and pineapple fields. Mostly sugarcane.
But eventually all the sugarcane and a lot of the pineapple businesses moved out of Hawaii because it’s cheaper to pay them to grow and process produce on a large scale in Asia. So, Hawaii ended up being covered with vast fields of weeds and grasses because the plantations were not replanted with anything else. Most of the arable land in Hawaii, thereby became a fire hazard in summer.
For a long time now that has been a cause of big brush fires causing lots of damage to homes. The video below is from a 2018 fire in Lahaina that burned 2000 acres and many homes in the same area and by the same cause as the devastating fire last week.
On Twitter people were wondering how there could be brush fires in Hawaii because most people think of Hawaii as lush and verdant. But as people who visit Hawaii know, the islands are only lush on a part of each island because the prevailing winds come from one direction. That causes clouds to be trapped on that side of the mountainous islands, dropping their moisture there and leaving us a lush verdant side of the islands with many waterfalls, and also a very dry part without the lush verdant foliage or waterfalls. The dry side is where most of the beach resorts are located because of the sunny warm weather year-round.
Maui has a very large dry side with not only vast fallow fields but also large areas which were never cultivated because they are comprised of inarable volcanic rock. That rocky land though is also covered with grasses. Even though each island has a dry side all areas are affected by wet winter storms.
Hawaii has 2 seasons, the wet season which is wettest in winter, and the dry season which is driest in summer. In the wet season the dry sides get enough rain from large storms so that it turns the landscape from dry dead grasses into green verdant grasses. That then becomes a fire hazard when they stop getting rain during the dry season. What used to be working plantations are now massive fallow fields of dry grasses and weeds in a very dry climate for 6 months of the year.
Why did Lahaina burn so fast?
There was a very unusual weather event combined with the usual summer brush fires.
Lahaina experienced the type of winds that are usually only experienced when there is rain with the wind. But this time there was no rain because the winds were not the result of Hurricane Dora passing over Hawaii, instead it bypassed Hawaii far to the south. That usually would not be a problem because that happens pretty much every year. But what was unusual this time was that the low pressure of the Hurricane passing to the south interacted with a high pressure area coming down from the north — meeting each other directly over the islands. That caused for a short period of time very high winds that are usually only seen in strong storms with lots of rain.
Because this happened at the driest time of year, the now normal fires that are always damaging in the summer, became massively stoked and spread very fast. The 60–80 mph winds acted like a massive set of bellows causing embers to fly everywhere at high speed. Once the fire from the fields blew embers and ignited the first houses on the perimeter of Lahaina above in Lahainaluna, there was nothing that could be done. They would have needed multiple fire trucks on every block. Firefighters said they felt helpless because the strong wind was blowing the water from their hoses all over the place or right back in their faces. Literally at least 100 fire trucks were needed because the wind was so unusually strong, and Lahaina typically is hot and very dry in August. The word Lahaina comes from the words lā or sun, and hainā or cruel and unrelenting. “Cruel and unrelenting sun” because of how dry Lahaina is.
With lots of easily combustible dry vegetation from the fallow fields, the strong winds tossed them around like flaming confetti at 60–80mph. Once the first houses caught fire, the size and speed of the fire got exponentially worse and worse. The more houses and vegetation burned the hotter and more easily combustible the other buildings became. The upper bypass road above Lahaina was the first area hit by the fire according to a witness video who owned a home right there. That left only two roads in and out of Lahaina, both of which converged on each side of Lahaina into one road. The fire came down from above the town, up the mountains a short way in Lahainaluna. Which meant that the people in Lahaina were not aware of how dangerous the fast moving embers being blown down on them was to become. The following video was taken in the south part of Lahaina right after the fire reached the shore area. The buildings to the left are a shopping center (street view) and behind them is a nice open-air dining area on the beach (view from above) which hosted a popular nightly Luau. This is early on after the fire had fast come down from above, you can see how the wind was affecting the speed of the fire.
People on Twitter and YouTube said they woke up that morning in the Lahaina area, before the fire, to a power outage. I saw videos of wooden utility poles being knocked down by the wind and large tree branches fallen on power lines. That is why cars were trapped on the road in Lahaina, police and the electric company stopped traffic because there were downed power lines on the road out of Lahaina that were being fixed. Because cell phones were not working they were not able to be told how bad the fire had become a mile down the road. The emergency sirens also didn’t go off because they said it was a bad idea because people wouldn’t have known it was about fire because they couldn’t communicate with the outside world, TV and internet had no power. They said sirens were built to warn people of a tsunami so people associate sirens either with the monthly test or with a tsunami warning. They have not been used for fires in the past, and they said they didn’t want people to think it was for a tsunami and then head to higher ground — because that is where the fire started.
Could it have been prevented? The fallow fields need to be replanted with something. But because water is a scarce commodity, they don’t want to use the massive amount of water needed to keep those fields green without making a profit. So those fields are a problem every summer now. There has been some attempt at cutting or plowing them over, but the fields are so massive that the only solution is to replant them with something.
This video shows the area where the fire started with downed power lines causing the dry grass to catch on fire.
So, why hasn’t there been a serious attempt to fix this known problem? The plantations closed because they could be undersold by cheaper sugar from lower wage nations. That caused the fire problems according to the experts, and it is obviously not going away unless fixed. This is a state issue btw, it’s not federal because it’s private land. What is motivating them not to fix it? Money, obviously. Will this massive loss of life finally light a fire in their hearts — will they be motivated to finally fix this even though it involves putting the lives of the common people over serving the rich and powerful? We will see.
Update: Aug 16
In a tweet today Elon Musk blamed the fire on a county official for not letting a land company from the Lahaina area get water in a timely manner, making them wait 5 hours to get authorization, which by then it was too late to help. That news was from 2 days ago, the officials then answered back that this is a ploy by a big land company to get access to more water for other purposes, and that they couldn’t have used reservoir water for the fire with helicopter drops anyways because the high winds grounded all flights.
What is interesting is that the land company is 1) One of the largest landowners on Maui, owning lots of ex-plantation land (the last link before the update is about them) and 2) They also own a big luxury home construction business on Maui, and 3) This may be about the land company trying to shift blame away from themselves. Right now it is too early to know what is true or false because the owners of the land company have been battling other people for a long time over land rights and water rights in the Lahaina area. With land so expensive on Maui there are a lot of people trying to stake out the high ground on this story in order to make money.
A story from last year about water fights over Launiupoko between local working people and the big developers.
Update: Sep 2
A state senator for Hawaii from Lahaina was in Lahaina the day of the fire and tells us what he experienced — harrowing and heartbreaking, it happened step by step exactly as was laid out above:
Then it’s getting toward the middle of the day, and I’m like, okay, let me see if there’s power back and see if the bank is open. So I get my car and I’m running around and then I stop off at their place — she’s still down at the boat and I’m making phone calls and stuff. And now I start to see smoke above Lahaina, this is maybe around 3. And I’m like, ‘Oh, great, here we go again, the power lines in the brush.” But okay, it looks like at first glance it’s way up there. It’s white smoke.
And so I go about doing stuff around their place, get some work done, make some phone calls. The smoke starts to turn black.
But the whole time you’re thinking, “OK, it’s gotten a little worse and worse, but if it gets real bad, there’s going to be some kind of alert or something.” And so I, like a lot of other people, just kept going on.
Then I start hearing pop, pop, pop, pop, explosions. It sounded to me like cars were blowing up with gasoline in them or hot water heaters or something. Literally, it was Ukraine. I mean, like mortar fire. It started getting blacker and blacker and bigger and bigger.
The next thing you know, it’s coming down the hill full-tilt burning the Kahoma Village homes. And now it was starting to engulf the area behind the affordable housing apartments that just recently got completed and opened up.
Now the fire is fully raging. Everybody in this little neighborhood’s coming out looking at the sky and you see like ash and stuff starting to come down everywhere and pieces of what was probably roofing. It’s an urban fire. You have these flaming embers that are shooting in the wind that is blasting like 70 miles an hour or so. It’s carrying all of this stuff ahead of the fire and dropping it on homes and trees.
Were people starting to flee at this point?
Yeah, some people are starting to flee. The smoke started getting worse. Some people are kind of like, “OK, what if it is as bad as it looks, as close as it looks? But, if it gets worse or bad, there will be a siren. There’ll be an alert on my phone.” And for some people who’ve been through this before, they were like, “The police will come through saying evacuate.” People kind of froze. And then there’s others who are like, “It’s not going to be that bad. The house is new. We’re going to go ahead and just kind of shelter in place.”
Then all of a sudden it starts to get really bad, the smoke and everything. And now I can see my place where I live in a condominium building is fully on fire. The whole area is raging. And I look at this monkey pod tree there, it was completely engulfed in flames and then something flammable next to it blew up, and it was a huge fireball.
So I grabbed their dog, tried to grab the cat, couldn’t find it, grabbed my stuff and threw it in the car and got out. This time, Front Street now was flooded with people trying to flee. But on this section of the street people self-organized to take over both sides of the street to go one-way out (to the north). People were letting other people go first and such.
I’m sure behind them (farther south on Front Street), it was absolute pandemonium because it was absolutely black. Huge black smoke just roaring.
I shoot across the street to Mala Boat Ramp because the streets are choked and I want to assess it and get a better view. And there was a guy who has a boatyard there, and we’re sitting there just watching.
Now the sky is pitch black. More people are streaming out. People are running, they’re pushing, their cars are jostling. All of a sudden embers that started coming down with the wind lit a palm tree on fire and then the homes behind it. The air is heating up like if you put your face in front of an oven when you open it.
So at that point you get back in the car with your brother’s dog, but you don’t leave town?
I took a position just by the rear of Lahaina Cannery Mall to let everybody else go. One guy had only a wheelchair. They were trying to stream out of the area, so I was like, okay, let them go.
I’m watching. And at that point you can see the flames fully engulfing everything. But it’s pushing past my brother’s place and I’m thinking it might be safe to go back. I’ve lost communications with everybody, so I couldn’t communicate with his partner. I didn’t know what she was doing.