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Friday, July 12, 2024

Cities Aren’t Supposed to Burn Like This Anymore—Especially Lahaina

Rescue crews are still searching Lahaina, Hawaii, for survivors of the catastrophic wildfire that obliterated the town last week on the island of Maui. It’s the deadliest blaze in modern American history, with 99 people confirmed dead, surpassing the 85 that perished in 2018’s Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Crews have only searched a quarter of Lahaina, so the death toll is expected to rise higher still. At least 2,200 structures have been destroyed.

During the 19th century, it made a kind of terrible sense that blazes like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 could burn swaths of a city almost totally unchecked. Fire and building codes were lacking. So were firefighting forces and robust water infrastructure. By the early 20th century, those things had been upgraded. Cities and towns were safer—for a while. But now expansive urban fires have returned, and they are burning with startling frequency and intensity.

“We thought urban fires had gone away, that San Francisco in 1906 was the last. And now they’ve come back,” says fire historian Stephen Pyne. “It’s like watching polio come back. We fixed this. But you have to maintain the hygiene—you have to keep up the vaccinations.”

And the Lahaina fire shows that they can burn in places where nobody expects a catastrophic wildfire: a modern town on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific, whose ecosystems only rarely saw wildfire in prehistory.

It’s not the only recent example of fires ravaging surprising places. In 2021, a freak wildfire ignited in late December—way outside of typical fire season—in Boulder, Colorado, burning more than 1,000 buildings. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire ripped through Santa Rosa, California, and its surrounding communities, destroying 5,600 structures and killing 22 people. “Those aren’t fire areas—they’re just the burbs,” says Thomas Cova, who studies wildfire evacuations at the University of Utah. “They’re modern streets, modern sidewalks, manicured lawns. It’s really become, in this changing climate, much more difficult to map where fires are going to occur and what time of year and how bad they might burn.” 

On Maui, as with wildfires all over the world, there isn’t just one factor contributing to the blaze. Overall, climate change is making wildfires worse: A warmer atmosphere can absorb more moisture from the landscape. Climate change is also making droughts more frequent, longer, and more severe, so there’s less moisture to wet the landscape in the first place. 

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Add high winds—gusts of up to 80 miles per hour drove the flames a mile a minute across Lahaina—and all it takes is a single spark to ignite a fast-moving blaze. “There’s no firefighting capabilities for structure-to-structure urban fire in winds like that,” says Cova. “Once one structure catches on fire, if the wind’s blowing like that, it becomes like a blowtorch against the neighboring home.”

These winds across Maui were dry as well, helping to suck the remaining moisture out of vegetation to turn it into fuel. That fuel seems to have been invasive grasses that European colonizers brought when they established plantations. When rains are plentiful, these plants grow like mad, then easily dry out once the rain stops. 

“Those fire-prone invasive species fill in any gaps anywhere else—roadsides, in between communities, in between people’s homes, all over the place,” Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, told WIRED last week. “At this point, 26 percent of our state is covered in these fire-prone grasses.” 

Not only has much of Maui been in a drought, but it’s also at the height of its dry season, so these plants have turned to tinder. “Feral landscapes fuel fires,” says Pyne. “Hot, dry, and windy, with lots of fuel, is the formula for big fires. And that’s what you’ve got here.”

In Hawaii, as in places along the West Coast, more and more people have been moving into the danger zone: the wildland-urban interface, or WUI. This is where nature butts up against human settlements or even intermingles with them. That’s why Paradise burned so quickly and thoroughly, destroying 19,000 structures, as the fire sped through pine needles and other dry leaves piled up around town. In Maui, the invasive grass acts as an accelerant. “Virtually every community in Hawaii is on a wildland-urban interface,” Pickett continued. “So we’re just like a WUI state, because we have developments that are all adjacent to wildland areas or surrounded by wildland areas.”

We don’t have to discover the vaccine against wildfires in such an interface—it’s already known. Massive urban fires waned in the 20th century because of better building codes, and infrastructure is still important today. When high winds kick up, they jostle power lines and can spark fires. Electrical equipment malfunctions were the confirmed causes of the Camp and Tubbs fires, among other recent blazes. While officials are still investigating what ignited the wildfire that consumed Lahaina, there’s speculation that it was also electrical wires. While it’s expensive to bury power lines, such an investment could go a long way toward saving structures and human lives.

And in the modern day, another big factor is managing potential fuels: In places like California, that means clearing dead brush. In Hawaii, it’s those invasive grasses. Because humans are such an unpredictable X factor in sparking fires—with a wayward firework or cigarette—it’s paramount that when people make mistakes, there’s less fuel to burn.

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Protecting cities from supercharged wildfires also requires fundamental social shifts. If a tropical town like Lahaina can burn, which other cities are also at risk—and totally unready for it? “Normally we think of preparing for events that are within an envelope of historical, prior events,” says Cova. “This is unprecedented for Lahaina. And so how do you even begin to talk about preparing for things that no one's ever seen, including the people that manage fires?” 

One of the greatest risks of urban wildfires is that residents can get caught between fast-moving fires and the limitations of city infrastructure, like narrow, winding roads or a lack of evacuation routes. People died in their cars trying to get out of Paradise, and it appears the same happened in Lahaina. “We’ve known for a long time—even in hurricanes where you have way-advance warning—that evacuating cars sometimes is essential, but it’s really problematic, because you get congestion right away,” says Ann Bostrom, a risk communication researcher at the University of Washington. “Any city where you have a wildland-urban interface, and then you have any kind of complicated transportation, where you don’t have free egress, that’s problematic.”

Protecting other cities from Lahaina’s fate will require fighting a battle on multiple fronts: managing fuels to re-tame the feral landscape, minimizing ignitions with better electrical infrastructure, and rigorously communicating evacuation plans. “This is the kind of society we’ve created,” says Pyne. “And these are the kinds of fires that society will have to deal with.”

Update, 8/16/23, 12 pm ET: This story has been updated to correct the date of the Tubbs Fire from 2016 to 2017.

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