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  • Writer's pictureIsa taranto

When fire meets the ocean: the wildfire that destroyed Maui

Last Tuesday, a ‘fire hurricane’ ravished the city of Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. One week later, the death toll climbs in the aftermath of a disaster that has already become the deadliest fire in the United States of the past century. While Lahaina struggles to survive, however, questions arise about the extent to which it could be better contained -- and if the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of casualties could have been prevented.

On the 8th of August, many of the thousands of Lahaina residents woke up to a widespread power shortage, one they quickly justified as caused by the approaching hurricane Dora. Simultaneously, although there had been local fire focuses during the morning, by 10 AM County officials had declared the fire “100% contained”. In the early afternoon, however, the wind had begun to holler and the air had become impregnated with ashes; by then, it was already too late -- the blaze moved incredibly quickly and close to the ground, ruthlessly swallowing the city until it reached the ocean.

Most of the survivors only had time to run, some throwing themselves into the water and swimming away from the shore, leaving behind the memories accumulated over a lifetime. Most, in fact, have lost everything.

Lahaina, destroyed by the flames. See image and Source: The Los Angeles Times

The specific cause of the first blaze of the wildfire is still uncertain, but most experts believe it to be the result of a combination of environmental conditions. Both the dryness of the environment -- which makes it much easier for a fire to catch on vegetation -- and the strong winds caused by the incoming hurricane were responsible for spreading the flame, said Hawaii Governor Josh Green to CNN on Friday.

Sadly, what has made this occurrence so tragic, at least partially, is human error. At the time of the wildfire, there were eighty outdoor sirens spread around the island of Maui, installed to alarm the population in case of tsunamis and other natural disasters. These sirens, however, never went off, a fault speculated to have been caused by the heat of the flames. Hydrants also turned useless against the heat of the fire. Without warning and temporary relief systems, residents were left with little other than the ocean to turn to.

After the fire, officials search for survivors -- and remains. See image and Source: NBC News

The devastation brought upon by the fire has sparked a larger conversation about the continuing dangers posed by reliance on the tourism industry. Lahaina -- and Maui island in general -- hosts multiple beach resorts and attracts travelers from all over the world. Luxury travel is what fuels the local economy: the Maui Economic Development Board estimates that four out of every five dollars in the County is generated by visitors, directly or indirectly. With the gradual recuperation that is to come after the wildfire, therefore, the tourism movement will most likely wane -- and the island will continue feeling the negative impact of the flames long after they are gone.

As of the latest announcement, there are 99 dead and more than one thousand missing. Cadaver dogs are being used in the search for human remains, and officials have estimated to have searched only about 25% of the impacted area. Governor Green reported to CNN on Monday that the death toll will still likely increase and could double over the next ten days.

The Maui County police chief, John Pelletier, has stated: “We pick up remains and they fall apart.”

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