Wildfires Are Exploding in Unexpected Places Due to Climate Change. Is Hawaii the Latest Example?

Hawaii’s devastating wildfire this week, which has killed at least 55 people and razed Maui’s historic town of Lahaina, is yet another sign of the emerging reality on a quickly warming planet, described by scientists as the latest, likely example of a major blaze erupting in an unexpected place. It’s a trend that climate experts have been warning about for years.

Without an attribution study, a complex and tedious process, it’s difficult to determine exactly how climate change influenced Maui’s fire. Still, experts say there’s plenty of evidence that suggests warming temperatures almost certainly played a role, in part by priming conditions on the island for an intense wildfire to thrive.

For one, Maui has been unusually dry this year due to flash droughts, which research suggests are becoming more common as the planet warms. Hotter temperatures and less rainfall mean drier vegetation to fuel the fires and make them more intense. Climate change also increases the likelihood of stronger storms, and the Maui fire was fanned by especially powerful winds, caused in part by a nearby hurricane.

In fact, over the last century, the average area burned during Hawaii wildfires has increased 400 percent, according to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. The group found that the proliferation of nonnative grass, combined with the influences of climate change, were “greatly” increasing the incidence of larger fires.

Global warming is “leading to these unpredictable or unforeseen combinations that we’re seeing right now and that are fueling this extreme fire weather,” Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz, a forestry researcher at the University of British Columbia, told the Associated Press. “What these … catastrophic wildfire disasters are revealing is that nowhere is immune to the issue.”

Climate scientists have been sounding the alarm bell for years, warning that not only are climate-driven wildfires burning bigger, hotter and faster, but they’re emerging in landscapes and during seasons in which they were previously rare.

It happened in 2018, when the nation’s deadliest wildfire blew through residential parts of California, killing 85 people, and major wildfires swept across Sweden and other northern European countries, known for their relatively cold and wet summers. It happened again in 2020, when devastating wildfires torched more than 4 million acres across parts of California and Oregon, marking one of the nation’s worst wildfire seasons on record. And again in 2021, when large blazes broke out in some of the most surprising places, including the frozen northern landscape of Russian Siberia and the populated suburbs of Boulder, Colorado.

To get a sense of just how unexpected the Colorado incident was, the fire penetrated so far into residential areas that more than 500 homes and a shopping center went up in flames. Officials could do little to contain the destruction.

Climate change is also leading to unexpected consequences from wildfires.

This year, for example, several major U.S. cities experienced bizarre wildfire impacts, despite being nowhere near the fires. Massive wildfires burning in Canada this summer have sent smoke thousands of miles south to places like New York City and Chicago, obscuring entire skylines in an ominous red haze. Increasingly intense fires in the U.S. have also prompted thousands of federal wildland firefighters to leave their jobs.

Many scientists have started to call those climate impacts “the new abnormal,” pointing to the unprecedented shift in Earth’s weather and climate averages. It’s a reality that some experts say people need to start taking into account to avoid tragedies like this week’s fire in Hawaii.

The blaze caused dozens of burn and smoke inhalation injuries, overwhelmed 911 call lines and knocked out power for more than 11,000 residents. Some residents even reported diving into the sea to escape the fast-approaching flames. At 55 deaths as of Friday morning, officials say Maui’s fire is the nation’s deadliest blaze in five years and Hawaii’s deadliest fire ever. One doctor who treated burn victims in the fire’s aftermath described the scene like he had “walked into a war zone.”

Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, believes that humans have changed the landscape of wildfires so drastically that the term “wildfire” may no longer be appropriate.

“We can’t really call them wildfires anymore,” she told the Associated Press. “To some extent they’re just not, they’re not wild. They’re not natural anymore. We are just making them more likely. We’re making them more intense.”

Want to help those devastated by the Maui fires? Here are some places where you can donate.

More Top Climate News

The Beloved Landmarks Destroyed or Imperiled by Maui’s Wildfires: The Maui fires this week were a tragedy in many senses, killing at least four dozen people and destroying more than 270 structures, including homes. But among the potential losses are a 200-year-old church and one of the nation’s largest banyan trees, two landmarks that have long held cultural significance on Maui and for Native Hawaiians, Alisha Ebrahimji reports for CNN. The banyan tree suffered significant burns, though some officials say it may still survive. It’s unclear if the church can be salvaged.

Biden Claims He ‘Practically’ Declared Climate Emergency, Enraging Activists: Climate activists are outraged after President Joe Biden said he “practically” declared a national climate emergency in a Weather Channel interview this week, Dharna Noor reports for the Guardian. While Biden has taken some actions that resemble a National Emergencies Act declaration, such as directing federal agencies to consider climate change in their spending decisions, a true declaration would open new powers, like allowing Biden to halt crude oil exports and suspend offshore oil leases.

This Moss Survived 165 Million Years. Climate Change Is Killing It: Takakia lepidozioides was one of the first land plants on Earth. The moss, found mainly in the U.S., Japan and Tibet, has survived at least 165 million years and multiple catastrophic climate events, including the one that killed the dinosaurs. But a new study has concluded that Takakia lepidozioides is disappearing in the wild due to climate change, Coco Liu reports for Bloomberg. Rising temperatures are leading to decreased habitat for the plant and could even cause its extinction.

Today’s Indicator

$34 billion

That’s the total amount of uninsured losses from severe thunderstorms in the United States in just the first half of the year, according to a Swiss Re Group analysis. That level of financial damage in such a short time is unprecedented and a consequence of climate change, the insurance giant said.

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                Kristoffer Tigue is a New York City-based reporter for Inside Climate News, where he covers environmental justice issues, writes the Today’s Climate newsletter and manages ICN’s social media. His work has been published in Reuters, Scientific American, Public Radio International and CNBC. Tigue holds a Master’s degree in journalism from the Missouri School of Journalism, where his feature writing won several Missouri Press Association awards.

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