Wildfires began after midnight on Tuesday 8th August, in the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Big Island, with the historic town of Lahaina - on Maui - thought to be one of the worst-hit areas.
US senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii told CNN that Lahaina resembled a bombed-out war zone where the heat had melted engine blocks. The wildfires were aided by strong winds from an off-shore hurricane, Hurricane Dora, in the eastern Pacific, prompting US President Joe Biden to declare it a “major disaster.”
Meteorologists say that gusts of winds up to 65mph (100km/h) fanned the wildfires.
By Thursday, nearly 15,000 visitors had left Maui.
According to the Pacific Disaster Center the fire has torched more than 2,200 buildings, burned 2,170 acres, and left thousands homeless, the loss will likely require many years and billions of dollars to rebuild. There are six shelters in operation on Maui for those displaced, and officials said they were drafting a plan to house them in hotels and tourists in rental properties.
Hawaii Governor Josh Green said the fires were ‘catastrophic’ and probably the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s history, surpassing that of a tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1960. In a late evening statement on Friday, Maui County said that the death toll on the island had risen to 80. Maui County Mayor Richard Bisen Jr. said, with Gov. Josh Green warned that death tolls would likely rise as search and rescue operations continue.
Three days after the disaster first began, it remained unclear whether residents had received any warning before the fire engulfed their homes.
The island includes emergency sirens intended to warn of natural disasters and other threats but residents did not appear to have heard the alarm or receive notifications about the disaster.
The governor said they would probably have a complete assessment of the total fatalities by the end of the week and authorized a review of the emergency response to the devastating fires.
Former US President Barack Obama - who was born in Hawaii - posted on the X social network (formerly known as Twitter), "It’s tough to see some of the images coming out of Hawai’i — a place that’s so special to so many of us. Michelle and I are thinking of everyone who has lost a loved one, or whose life has been turned upside down."
The island is also home to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He and his partner Lauren Sanchez pledged $100m (£79m) to wildfire victims and ‘over the coming years as the continuing needs reveal themselves.’
Hawaii’s wildfires are becoming more frequent each year. Scientists point to changing agricultural practices as well as to climate change bringing less rainfall and longer periods of drought. Wildfires around the world are linked to human-induced climate change that is exacerbated by the continued use of fossil fuels.
Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy tweeted, “Climate change doesn’t usually start the fires, but it intensifies them, increasing the area they burn and making them much more dangerous.” The island has experienced other serious fires as recent as 2018 and 2021, razing hundreds of homes and causing the evacuation of thousands of residents and tourists.
A study published by the American Meteorological Society in 2015, highlighted the growing susceptibility of Hawaii to major fires and found that rainfall had been 31% lower in the wet season since 1990 in selected monitoring sites on the islands.
Scientists have also calculated that 90% of the state is getting less rainfall than it did a century ago, with the period since 2008 being particularly dry.
Here are a few ways in which we could help victims of the fires:
The Hawaii Community Foundation is asking for monetary donations. This fund is used to support communities affected by the wildfires.
Maui United Way is also asking for money. The organization promises to provide immediate financial assistance through grants to nonprofits at the forefront of relief efforts and to households that have been affected.
The American Red Cross is also providing disaster relief for those forced to flee their homes.
Picture courtesy - PBS.com
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