'The next Maui could be anywhere': Hawaii tragedy points to US wildfire vulnerability

The deadly wildfires in Maui reveal a vulnerability in the United States that is increasing as quickly as threats from climate change: Huge swaths of the nation lie in dry danger zones where wildfires spark, and cash-strapped governments have ineffective emergency plans to save lives.

That was the deadly combination in the Maui disaster - namely, wildfire risk coupled with what some experts and victims have called questionable emergency preparedness. And it has played out in some of the deadliest fires in the nation and around the globe, alarming fire experts and community leaders.

Similar scenarios happened in Paradise, California, where 85 people died and nearly 19,000 structures were destroyed in the Camp Fire in 2018; and in Algeria, Italy and Greece, where questions of effective emergency response and preparedness have been raised after more than 40 people combined died from wildfires sparked by an intense heat wave, high winds and dry vegetation last month. Canada is experiencing a devastating record wildfire season, with over 33.9 million acres scorched and at least four people dead so far.

In Maui, where at least 111 people have died and more than 2,200 acres were burned in the Aug. 8 wildfires, the county already knew it had a high wildfire risk, according to a study it commissioned two years ago following an "unprecedented wildfire season" in 2019, where more than 20,000 acres were burned.

"Hawaii’s and Maui’s fire problem is more extreme than on the U.S. mainland," the study said, noting dozens of buildings and vehicles were damaged in a 2018 wildfire. While there were no deaths in either of those years, warnings were raised - and possibly not heeded by local officials.

Now, experts from around the world are taking a second look at many places that may also be at risk after Maui's crisis, which now is among the top ten deadliest wildfires on record in the U.S. since 1871.

"The next Maui could be anywhere," said Tirtha Banerjee, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Irvine. "Realistically, almost any place could have a wildfire."

Properties destroyed in the West Maui Wildfire are seen near Front Street in Lahaina on Maui, Hawaii Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.
Properties destroyed in the West Maui Wildfire are seen near Front Street in Lahaina on Maui, Hawaii Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.

America isn't the only country worried about wildfires

Thousands of communities, from urban enclaves, coastal towns and remote locales throughout the U.S., and abroad, similar to Maui, are vulnerable to wildfires because of the increasingly deadly combination of climate change and governments' lack of emergency plans and resources, experts say.

"There seems to be a consensus among those in the scientific community that it might get worse for a bit before it gets better," Banerjee said.

Alexis Normand, CEO of Greenly, a platform helping companies track their carbon use, said, a wildfire can happen in the "most unthinkable places around the world" under the right conditions. In the past month, big blazes in the Greek Islands, the Canary Islands and Indonesia's Sumatra Islands have led to intense burning stemming from heatwaves across Southern Europe and North Africa, Normand pointed out.

Normand also referred to the thousands of residents who are now evacuating from Canada's northwest territories, leading to emergency declarations due to wildfires. Close to 400 active fires are still burning across British Columbia.

"There's also an increasing scarcity of water in places like France, Australia and Egypt," Normand said by phone from Paris. "I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but the answer is definitely, yes. Wildfires are happening more frequently and in more uncommon places."

Global warming is causing wildfires to increase at the same time as communities might not be committed to investing in and executing preparedness plans to reduce wildfire risks, said Laurie Wayburn, co-founder and president of Pacific Forest Trust, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

"As bad as the situation is here in America, it may be just as bad in Europe as they are learning the same lessons we are," Wayburn said. "It appears you have to be in the middle of a crisis to make you learn that you have to avoid tragedies from the onset."

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Wildfires across US 'burning hotter, faster with more intensity'

Record high temps, extreme drought conditions and substantially high winds during major weather events, including storms with thunder and lightning, are among the causes for the recent spikes in wildfire activity in high-risk locations across the U.S., Canada and Europe, said Michele Steinberg, the wildfire division director at the National Fire Protection Association.

In the U.S., nearly half the land area is composed of forest, shrubs, and grassland, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Currently, there are nearly 45 million U.S. homes located near or adjacent to these areas, the EPA said.

Within the last five years, wildfires have destroyed nearly 63,000 structures. A majority of them are homes, said Steinberg, who also serves on President Joe Biden's Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.

"We’re definitely seeing a huge increase. It's significantly higher than in the past 10 years," Steinberg said. That's mostly due to Americans settling down in once-rural areas, particularly in the southern and western states in the last half-century or so, she said.

"We're moving into these fire-prone areas," Steinberg said. "Now we have a lot more wildfires that will burn hotter, faster and with more intensity due to these conditions."

'Most deadliest and devastating wildfires in front of us'

Andrew Bozzo, a fire captain at the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District in the San Francisco Bay Area, said "Americans are getting a front-row seat to wildfires like never before."

"The most deadliest and devastating wildfires are happening right in front of us," said Bozzo, a firefighter for 25 years. "We half-heartedly joke in the fire industry that all of those tactics we’ve learned . . . throw them out of the window."

Bozzo said Americans, and those in other countries, have simply not heeded the warnings about an evolving environment due to climate change. A former scientist, Bozzo said heat-trapping carbon dioxide is hitting all corners of the Earth at record levels.

There's also a variety of factors contributing to wildfires globally, Bozzo said. Among them are the spread of invasive plants, trees, and grasses. And while rain and snowpacks may reduce drought conditions and the risk of fires starting, Bozzo said, it also increases vegetation growth, which can become fuel for fires during the dry summer months if not cut or removed.

Many municipalities may not make certain strategies, including thinning oversized forests by cutting trees and shrubbery and conducting prescribed burns to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, a priority, Bozzo said.

"By no means is this just limited to the U.S. There have always been wildfires in Greece and France, but have they been at this magnitude we're seeing? No," said Bozzo, who is also the co-founder of Tablet Command, an incident response software platform used by fire departments in San Francisco, Charlotte, North Carolina, Columbus, Ohio and Los Angeles County. "These wildfires . . . no, mega-fires . . . are not one-offs. The coordinated plans to prevent them has to be a continuous and committed effort."

Destroyed homes and businesses are seen in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 16, 2023.
Destroyed homes and businesses are seen in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 16, 2023.

Lessons learned from Maui wildfire: 'We're going to pay 10 times over'

In the 2021 Maui County report on wildfire prevention, officials were encouraged to take an "aggressive plan to replace hazardous fuel sources" that start wildfires.

Wildfire experts in Hawaii, including Camilo Mora, a climate scientist and professor at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa, said they have warned state officials for years that wildfire preparedness was essential. Mora said he was among many who cited that overgrown grasses and other quick-burning vegetation used as fuels put certain areas, including Maui, at risk.

Vegetation grows quickly amid rainfall, but also dries out in drought, Mora said. Left unattended, the vegetation is ripe for a quick burn during a fire. And that's what he believes happened in the Maui wildfire, as a result of not enough being done.

He cited Hawaii’s Forestry and Wildlife division, which handles fire suppression and fire prevention, has about $28 million in its operating budget for this fiscal year. Probably not enough funds to do what's necessary, Mora said.

"We didn't pay enough attention," Mora said. "This was not an unannounced tragedy, we knew this coming. It was just a matter of when."

'WE'RE NOT WAITING': Maui community shows distrust in government following deadly wildfires

The 2021 report also said island communities are "particularly vulnerable because populations tend tobe clustered and dependent" on single highways. "Escape routes and evacuation locations and resources for populations impacted by fire incidents are also impeded by fire incursions," the report said.

Residents in Lahaina reportedly were having problems getting out of the popular residential and tourist town as traffic was at a complete standstill on Honoapiilani Highway, the main road, while the wildfire spread.

While rebounding towns like Paradise, California, are working on their wildfire mitigation plans, Mora said he's pondering and calculating the emotional, physical and potentially fiscal impact the wildfire will have in Maui going forward.

He's sure Hawaii officials, local and state, are going to turn the tragedy into substantive action with wildfire prevention. He and thousands of others will be devastated if they don’t.

"More hands for the restoration and reconstruction are needed," Mora pleaded. "Because of the damage from this fire, we're probably going to pay 10 times over what it would've cost to fix this problem in the beginning."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Maui deadly fires could happen again in many US cities and towns