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The influence of climate change on wildfires and the need for wildfire resilience

Meghan Oh

The recent fires in Maui serve as a reminder of the trail of dismay that extends past immediate environmental destruction, but the loss of lives, homes, and communities sending the island into mass displacement and economic distress. The National Fire Protection Association reported that Maui experienced one of the top 10 worst wildfires in American history since 1871, scorching 2,170 acres of land and taking the lives of 115 people. This wildfire is one of the 42,173 fires that occurred across the United States in 2023. The great intensity and sheer scale of the fires in Lahaina, fueled by strong winds and dry conditions, has illuminated the broader issue of climate change its role in the increasing risk of wildfires.

While 85% of wildfires are man-made and not a direct result from climate change, global warming has increased the risk and conditions for them to occur for prolonged periods. For example, the Maui wildfires is said to have occurred due to a power line— however, the island has experienced an extended drought that exacerbated the intensity of the fire. According to the NOAA, the formation of wildfires requires the “alignment of three important factors: temperature, humidity, and the lack of moisture.” Strong winds from Hurricane Dora known as downslope wind created “volatile fire conditions” in Lahaina that created extremely hot and dry conditions to spread rapidly across the landscape. Climate change has been worsening these factors to increase with the subsequent rising temperatures, extensive droughts, and dry atmospheric conditions increasing the risk of wildfires. As global warming progresses, we can expect to see longer and extended fire seasons due to these factors.

The looming threat of wildfires and the destruction that follows emphasizes the urgency needed from policymakers to improve emergency preparedness and evacuation protocols. While we cannot predict when wildfires will strike, the most communities can do is prepare through a systems-based approach. According to researchers at UC Davis, a few ways to prepare for wildfires is to “invest in prevention, develop an effective emergency response system, plan mandatory evacuations, make emergency shelter available, and build more robust water power systems” to overall support survivors of these harmful incidents. The Maui fires exemplify how resource allocation and management have all impacted survivors of wildfires from the current food insecurity, to the lack of resources to go around in an eco-tourist dependent industry. Messages warning people to not visit Maui have spread across social media, urging them to cancel their flights and reservations and give residents the priority to evacuate and allow their communities to rebuild. The active drought in the past five years has decreased the amount of active agriculture by 60% which has further been exacerbated by the wildfires. The water rights crisis in Maui has been acknowledged by the governor himself, when he claimed in the Honolulu Civil Beat news that so many lives were lost because they lack a “water policy or a statewide plan that protects the land from burning.”

The fight for proper resource management/allocation and emergency response as demonstrated in the Maui fires demonstrates actions policy-makers should be taking to mitigate these effects and protect their communities from natural disasters. As climate change progresses and extreme weather events become ever more occurring it is crucial to prepare for the worst-case scenarios for when these occurrences become a reality.


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