But the investment required to properly mitigate fire risk across Hawaii has been slow to come.

Maui County has known the town of Lahaina and its neighboring communities were the island’s most at-risk for wildfires for years, with alarms being raised at least as far back as 2018.

According to the county’s hazard mitigation plan, developed in 2020, West Maui had a 90% chance of annual wildfires.

Figures in that report mirror those in a different report by the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, which illustrated the need for more effective policy development, protection of infrastructure, community awareness and consistent and effective land management.

The latter report included a map of Maui’s areas of greatest concern, highlighting some of the communities that turned out to be where multiple fires occurred starting Tuesday. Lahaina and the area around Maalaea were identified as being of highest concern.

The Collaborative, Landscape-Level Approach to Reduce Wildfire Hazard Across Hawaii, published by the Hawaii Wildfire Managment Organization, highlighted the areas of most concern for Maui’s large land owners and public in 2018. (Courtesy: HWMO)

The first fire broke out on Tuesday at 12.22 a.m. on Olinda Road in Upcountry Maui. Another brush fire was reported near Lahaina Intermediate School at 6.37 a.m. Subsequent fires started in Kula and near Kihei, with several smaller blazes between.

A second fire in Lahaina erupted just after 5 p.m. and tore through the West Maui township into Wednesday morning.

The death toll is at least 93, Maui County announced Saturday.

Lahaina’s wildfire burned through 2,170 acres, destroying or damaging 2,207 structures, according to the Maui Emergency Management Agency.

The wildfires have galvanized calls for prevention and mitigation, something experts have been concerned about for years as climate change and declining agriculture creates increasingly prime conditions for fire.

HWMO co-director Elizabeth Pickett says the nonprofit and its county and state partners have made significant progress in implementing the community-based work since the organizations inception in 2002. But the necessary “enormous” infrastructure investments have not come.

“I don’t know if I understood the urgency of those bigger investments,” Pickett said.

The report about Maui was created with input from major land owners and managers, emergency responders and policy makers, among others.

Maui County’s 2020 hazard mitigation plan reflected the areas of concern. (Courtesy: Maui County)

They identified about 132,000 acres of the island with burnable vegetation requiring long-term management with practices such as those used in agriculture.

The report also identified a need for 70 miles of fire breaks, bare tracts of land that keep fires from spreading, and 90 miles of fuel breaks, wider expanses of land that help reduce fire intensity.

But those steps required a huge amount of money and collaboration.

Still, according to the report, the potential for destruction far outweighed the cost of prevention.

The cost of rebuilding Lahaina will be in the billions but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to release its estimate.

Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan estimated the value of West Maui’s buildings alone at more than $18 billion.

A fire engine drives past buildings destroyed by wildfire in the historic town of Lahania Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, on Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A fire engine drives past buildings destroyed by wildfire in Lahania, a city identified as being at risk as far back as 2018. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Pickett says the bottom line is that investment is needed at all levels: water, power and protective infrastructure; community programs; land management; and emergency response and responders.

“All those parts need to be addressed, so it’s a very complex situation … There’s a role for everyone,” Pickett said. “Firefighting is the last line of defense. Stop counting on that and thinking it’s not up to all of us. It’s actually up to all of us to each do our part.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author