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Maui in Flames: The Environmental Toll of Coastal Wildfires

By: Alyssa Starmer

Photo by Brantin Stevens via AP

In early August 2023, fast-moving wildfires caused severe destruction in the resort town of Lahaina, Maui. Caused by high wind speeds and dry conditions, the fires took the lives of over 100 people and destroyed more than 2,200 homes and buildings. Along with the devastating impacts, an incredible challenge post-wildfire is dealing with all of the waste and debris. Posing huge environmental concerns, toxic debris can have a direct impact on marine processes, local ecosystems, and human health.

Wildfires have a disastrous effect on the impacted land. These fires burn through native forests that promote the biodiversity of local plants and animals. The loss of natural soil makes it hard to restore and replant native species. As a result, forests affected by wildfires become grassy, which increases the chances of post-fire erosion. In addition, the absence of native forest habitats often leaves only invasive species capable of handling the particular living situation.

Debris from these wildfires frequently contains scorched boats and cars, commercial structures, homes, and charred soils. Many of these materials contain synthetic and toxic components that become runoff, finding their way into aquatic systems during rain events. The toxic elements of the debris and waste may also seep into topsoil and travel into streams and coastal waters. Once introduced into aquatic systems, toxins can have an array of complex consequences on marine ecosystems. Underwater invertebrates are unable to distinguish runoff from food and could consequently ingest toxic materials. Metal and contaminants from runoff enter at the bottom of the food chain and work their way up causing high concentrations in fish as they ingest smaller animals, a process known as biomagnification. Runoff also has the potential to cause harmful algae blooms, which occur when an abundance of algae grows and produces toxins that can harm people and marine life. To learn more about harmful algae blooms, you can read Seaside Sustainability’s blog post about these events.

The Maui fires are especially concerning for marine ecosystems because of their proximity to the shore. When the distance between the fires and the coast is smaller, the impact of wildfire runoff is more severe. It is challenging to predict the long-term effects of recent fires as it is uncommon for fires to occur as close as they have to the shoreline. The vitality of Maui’s tropical location is tightly intertwined with the functioning and the health of coral reefs. Coral reefs are ecologically important; they provide a habitat and food for organisms, shield them from coastal erosion, and protect the land from storm events. In addition, coral reefs help sustain the island's economy by providing goods and services and contributing to the tourism industry. Unfortunately, wildfires can be very detrimental to the health of these ecosystems. Ocean temperature rise resulting from global warming causes coral bleaching which weakens coral resilience to the impacts of wildfires. Coral reefs thrive in low-nutrient and pollutant-free clear water as a majority of coral species contain photosynthetic cells requiring light to produce energy. Increased erosion associated with wildfires causes an increase of sediment in waterways. Sedimentation causes smothering to the organism which reduces light available and can be deadly.

Environmentally the impacts of these wildfires are extensive, however, there are also many harmful impacts on humans and the community. The fires have contributed to the contamination of water, respiratory problems, and long-term health issues from exposure to pollutants. Wildfires can contaminate water systems and private wells. When multiple buildings are destroyed, the water system loses pressure and forms a vacuum that pulls debris into water-delivery pipes such as hydrants and taps. In addition, burning biomass releases soot,  harmful gasses, and dust that can cause respiratory problems. Long-term health problems may present as hazardous manmade products are burnt. Based on the composition of the buildings burnt in Maui, there is a big concern about carcinogenic exposure from asbestos and lead. Maui’s mountainous landscape and higher wind speeds increase exposure since air pollutants can be dispersed farther and impact a larger area. Due to the recency of events and lack of research, it is difficult to estimate the long-term health impacts of the Maui wildfires.

The Maui fires have had a devastating impact on the economy of the local community. Due to island shipping costs, there is a significant markup for wildfire cleanup and rebuilding efforts. The fires will take a huge toll on the tourism industry and the community of Maui as the city of Lahaina attracts 80% of island visitors. The local communities and culture in Maui are strongly tied to fishing, swimming, diving, and living on the coast, which have all been impacted due to the magnitude of the fires. 

These wildfires were truly devastating for the communities and environment in Maui. Despite all the damage, it is still possible to reduce the harmful effects of the fires, as well as take preventative measures for when they do occur. Barriers can be installed around storm drain openings to catch large debris and filter the water passing through. In Maui, the Coast Guard has put absorbent booms in the ocean around stormwater outlets to absorb any oil or hazardous materials draining through the storm drains. Monitoring equipment has been placed in the ocean to measure ecosystem impacts. The goal of these monitoring devices is to collect data on contaminant levels identifying which reefs are in urgent need of restoration or rehabilitation. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sprayed cleared areas with biodegradable soil stabilizers. The use of soil stabilizers creates a temporary crust on ash piles preventing dust and ash from blowing into the air and oceans. 

We can each do our part to help prevent wildfires by being vigilant about fire-burning regulations, checking drought conditions, building a campfire in an open space far from flammables, and fully dousing a campfire before leaving it unattended. We can support Maui through donations, volunteering, and simply raising awareness. The Maui Nui Strong website provides resources to help support the community, even if you are out of state. Through scientific research and community engagement, we can help rebuild Maui and do our best to prevent severe wildfires from occurring in the future.

Works Cited

Al Jazeera. (2023, August 11). What is the environmental impact of the Hawaii Fires? 

Canon, G. (2023, August 18). “coral are going to die”: Maui wildfires take toxic toll on marine ecology. The Guardian. 

Jacobo, J. (2023, September 8). Environmental impacts of Maui wildfires will last for years to come, experts say. ABC News. 

Maui wildfire relief. Maui Wildfire Relief. (n.d.-b). 

Sommer, L. (2023, August 29). Another struggle after the Maui fires: Keeping toxic runoff out of the Ocean. NPR. 

Tollefson, J., & magazine, N. (2023, August 31). Maui fires could contaminate the island’s waters. Scientific American.


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