• Outdoors Outdoors

Experts explain rare combination of events that caused devastating Maui wildfires: 'The air literally sucks moisture out of the ground'

"It's not the reason … behind this fire. But it is related."

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Maui is reeling from the devastating wildfires that killed at least 99 people as of Aug. 15, making it the most lethal wildfire in the U.S. in more than 100 years.

The blazes destroyed thousands of structures, including many in Lāhainā, the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. The total damage across the island of Maui is now estimated to be as high as $6 billion.

What conditions worsened the fires?

Hawaiʻi Governor Josh Green spoke out following the devastation to comment on how a unique combination of environmental factors — both the deadly wildfires and the powerful winds of nearby Hurricane Dora — combined to create a catastrophic result. 

"That level of destruction in a fire-hurricane — something new to us in this age of global warming — was the ultimate reason that so many people perished," he said.

Dr. Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz, a fire ecologist at the University of British Columbia, told the Associated Press that our overheating planet is "leading to these unpredictable or unforeseen combinations that we're seeing right now and that are fueling this extreme fire weather."

This is not to say that Hawaiʻi has not seen wildfires in the past. However, a hotter and drier Hawaiʻi means that these fires will be worse when they do happen. In the weeks leading up to the blazes, Hawaiʻi was seeing "flash drought" conditions, which are known to be worsened by the planet's overheating.

Flash droughts, as the Associated Press explains, create conditions that are so dry and hot that "the air literally sucks moisture out of the ground and plants in a vicious cycle of hotter-and-drier that often leads to wildfires," adding that two scientists confirmed the situation that unfolded in Hawaiʻi is a "textbook case."

According to the Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization, the amount of land burnt by fire on the Hawaiian Islands has increased by 400% over the past century. 

Our changing climate is not the sole reason why the fires were devastating. Some have also pointed to the spread of highly flammable invasive plants and grasses across the island as a catalyst.

"[Climate change is] a piece of the puzzle, but it's not the whole thing," Elizabeth Pickett, Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization's co-executive director, told The Verge. "It's not the reason … behind this fire. But it is related."


Our planet will continue to overheat, causing devastating extreme weather events in our communities, until we decrease our dependence on dirty energy sources like coal, gas, and oil, which pump planet-warming gases into the atmosphere when burned for fuel.

Luckily, there are several ways people can help to fight the Earth's overheating. Whether it's installing solar panels, subscribing to a community solar program, using public transportation, lessening reliance on single-use plastics, or even just talking about the problem with family and friends, everyone can work together to combat this monumental issue and prevent additional extreme weather events.

How you can help right now 

Organizations across Hawaiʻi and the rest of the United States have stepped up to help the survivors of these intense fires.

Groups like the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation and the Red Cross are taking monetary donations to provide rapid support for those dealing with the after-effects of the fires.

The Maui Food Bank is requesting a variety of donated items, like toilet paper, diapers, and feminine products, in addition to food and monetary donations. If you're on the island, you can also sign up to volunteer for disaster response activities. 

Finally, the Maui Humane Society is asking that people "SOS Foster" an animal if they can. The Maui Humane Society is also accepting donations of pet food, supplies, and toys.

Cool Divider