By Emma Marris, Nature magazine on August 15, 2023
Wildfires are not new to Hawaii. Although outsiders tend to think of the Pacific archipelago as a place of lush tropical vegetation, each island has a drier leeward side that is sheltered from the wind — this is where tourism tends to be concentrated, because of the sunny weather. Lahaina, where the most lethal fire broke out on 8 August, means ‘cruel sun’ in Hawaiian; this part of Maui has always been hot and dry.
What’s more, Hawaiian fires are getting worse and more frequent. “We’ve been seeing a pretty steady increase, and in the last few decades, an exponential increase in the amount of area that burns in Hawaii every year,” says climatologist Abby Frazier at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
The three main ingredients of a wildfire are fuel, dryness and an ignition source. Hawaii’s key fuel is grass, which proliferated in former agricultural areas as the economy shifted from ranching and sugar and pineapple cultivation to tourism. When dry grasses burn, they can carry fire to forested areas, which tend to become grasslands after the fire, in a self-perpetuating cycle.