The island of Maui has endured devastating wildfires which has obliterated the historic community of Lahaina located on the island’s western shore. Over 100 people have lost their life, many more are missing, and thousands are without homes, access to power, or communications. As the community and world work to provide aid and support, many are seeking answers surrounding the devastation. Politicians and news outlets have been quick to blame climate change and urge some form of affiliated action. But are the Maui wildfires the result of global warming? 

Heartbreaking fires in Hawaii! Scientists are clear that climate chaos wreaking havoc on ecosystems everywhere is the new norm. We need to take action immediately or else it will get even worse.
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley

Mostly false or misleading. Significant errors or omissions. Mostly make believe.

Are the Maui wildfires the result of global warming? 

Those spouting climate change or global warming reasons are seeking the spotlight, but not the truth. As with all natural disasters, there are many factors at play. Hawaii is a fire-prone state mostly due to its topography and high winds. Its risk of fire has increased due to the presence of non-native grasses that have overtaken former agricultural sites. 

One scientist explained that Maui used to be covered with sugar cane plantations, but these operations ceased with the last one closing in 2016. As a result, unattended sugar cane fields have been overtaken by dry, easily flammable grass—first introduced to the island by settlers in the 1900s.

A 2014 report by Hawaiian experts warned that Lahaina in particular was at an “extremely high risk of burning.” The plan included a number of mitigation measures such as “thinning vegetation near populated areas, improving wildfire-response capabilities and working with landowners and utilities to help reduce fire risk on their property.” While some of these were implemented, many were not. Most devastating is the failure to ramp up emergency management response, which the report’s author attributed to “a lack of funding, logistical hurdles in rugged terrain and competing priorities.”

The local utility also foresaw the wildfire threat. Hawaiian Electric has flown drones over West Maui for years “to identify utility lines prone to wildfires” and in 2022 submitted a request to the local utility commission seeking $189.7 million “to bolster its power grid across the state, including wildfire-prevention measures.” More recent reports reveal that despite the utility’s awareness, the company focused its resources on transitioning the power grid to renewable energy rather than taking care of existing infrastructure. The cause of the fire has not yet been fully determined, but evidence suggests it may have been started by a downed power line near Kahaina. 

Despite these decades-old warnings, local officials were not prepared. Maui, which is the second largest Hawaiian island, has an extensive emergency siren system, which boasts over 80 outdoor sirens designed to warn of tsunamis and other hazards. But when the fires blew through the Lahaina community, the sirens failed to sound.  

The more accurate cause of the wildfires and affiliated devastation is a failure of local leadership to meaningfully respond to and prepare for known threats.