2023 Hawaii Wildfires: What Caused the Maui Wildfires?

2023 Hawaii Wildfires: What Caused the Maui Wildfires?

The State of Hawaii was battered by a series of wildfires in early August of 2023. The Big Island and the island of Oahu were affected but the most devastating incident happened in the island of Maui in the specific town of Lahaina. The wildfires took place between August 8 and August 10 and the entire catastrophic occurrence left at least 93 people dead and over 1700 structures damaged based on reports. What exactly happened? How did the wildfires in Hawaii start? What caused the Maui wildfires?

A Look Into the Possible Causes of the 2023 Wildfires in Maui

Background of Wildfire Incidents in Hawaii

Hawaii has been experiencing instances of wildfires across its islands and throughout its recorded history. However, in recent decades, the typical areas burned by wildfires have increased. Some experts have attributed the increase on the spread of non-native vegetation and a series of hotter and drier weather due to the ongoing climate emergency.

Past wildfires in Hawaii had different causes. Some were natural while others were human-induced. The Waikoloa Fire of 2015, for example, was sparked by lightning. It burned 25000 acres of grassland and forest in the Big Island. The Kokee Fire of 2000 that burned 4000 acres of native forest and wildlife habitat originated from an illegal campfire.

The National Interagency Fire Center of the U.S. federal government issued an “above normal” forecast for significant wildfires in Hawaii in August. The forecast came was based on abundant vegetation growth from the previous wet season and the expanding drought. Take note that this agency issues a seasonal outlook each month to alert state governments.

It is also important to note that the office of the National Weather Service in Honolulu issued a red flag warning on August 7 in several areas in Hawaii. The announcement mentioned that dried vegetation, strong and gusty winds, and low humidity would increase the likelihood of critical fire weather conditions around August 8.

Understanding the Causes of Maui Wildfires

What exactly caused the Maui wildfires that began on 8 August 2023 remains unknown. Experts have a working theory nonetheless. The expanding drought was factored in. The specific dry weather in Hawaii was influenced by a high-pressure system in the northern part of the Hawaiian islands that brought warm and sunny conditions.

The weather created an environment that could spark a wildfire. Strong winds could be taken into account. The concurrent passage of Category 4 Hurricane Dora several hundred miles in the southwest caused strong gradient winds to develop over the islands due to the large pressure difference between the high-pressure area and the low-pressure cyclone.

Several experts have also noted that the presence of the invasive plant species called guinea grass could be factored in as one of the causes of the Maui wildfires. This plant can grow up to 15 cm per day and reach a maximum height of 3 meters. The entire field of guinea grass also creates a large mass of dry vegetation upon drying out.

Nevertheless, based on the aforementioned, the hot and dry weather conditions hosted an environment suitable for a wildfire to spark. Strong winds would fan the flames from a limited wildfire. The dried-out mass of  guinea grass and other wild vegetation provided an enormous amount of fuel that can increase the intensity of a wildfire.