Hawaii’s wildfires are the latest reminder that it’s a new normal in many places when it comes to extreme weather linked partly to climate change. And those changes are increasingly costly to health and economic resilience.
On the popular island of Maui, firefighters were still working Friday to fully contain devastating wildfires that have killed at least 55 people. As the blazes diminish, thousands of residents of the historic coastal town of Lahaina returned to nearly complete devastation. It was a unique and dangerous situation as tourists unfamiliar with the best escape routes ran for their lives with locals who had little time to react when compromised cellphone connectivity failed to deliver alerts.
Governor Josh Green said the inferno that reduced much of Lahaina to smoldering ruins was the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. And that history has no shortage of hurricanes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, even some wildfires.
The conditions for the Maui fire included more than one impetus. Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara of Hawaii’s Department of Defense said the fires were fueled by dry conditions, low humidity and high winds. An abundance of grassland overtaking former pineapple farms also provided tinder.
Flash droughts, which research suggests are becoming more common as the planet warms, are an issue as much as flash floods can be. Nearly a fifth of Maui is in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Read: What makes flash floods so dangerous? Here’s how to protect yourself.
The point is, fires increasingly pose risks to areas not even fully populated with dense woodlands, and that’s a lesson for the rest of country.
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.”
Canada’s wildfires became a U.S. problem this year when several major U.S. cities experienced smoke and pollution impacts despite being nowhere near the direct flames. Smoke drifted thousands of miles south to places like New York City and Chicago, obscuring entire skylines in an ominous red haze and putting the very young, old, outdoor workers and people with underlying respiratory conditions at risk.
Earth has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the industrial age, according to an earlier report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts created by the United Nations.
That makes a voluntary global target to stop man-made warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) a potentially daunting task as humans continue to burn coal, oil
and natural gas
as part of modern society. Beyond this warming point, scientists say, the impacts of catastrophic heat waves, wildfires, flooding, drought, crop failures and species extinction could become significantly harder for the human race to handle.
Read: There’s a 66% chance global temperatures will hit a key climate marker within 5 years
Katharine Hayhoe, the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, said that global warming is causing vegetation to dry out, priming it as fuel once a fire breaks out.
“Climate change doesn’t usually start the fires; but it intensifies them, increasing the area they burn and making them much more dangerous,” she tweeted.
There can also be short-term or special factors that when combined with underlying long-run warming concerns make for dangerous situation. That this week’s Maui wildfire was fueled by winds from a passing Hurricane Dora still far off its coast was unique.
Additionally, an expected blast of heat from El Niño, a cyclical, naturally occurring weather phenomenon, is adding to the underlying warming trends hitting much of North America this summer.
Related: July 2023 is the hottest month ever recorded. Blame global warming and El Niño.
Natural disasters: Picking up the pace, getting costlier
More than a dozen natural disasters in the U.S. alone so far this year will cost more than $1 billion each. Last year there were 18 natural disasters in all. Soaring insurance premiums, that is if coverage persists, and the shocking loss of coverage in high-risk areas, including Florida and parts of California, are another aspect of a new normal.
Read: State Farm cracks down on California wildfire insurance. What it means for all homeowners.
AccuWeather says its preliminary estimate of the total damage and economic loss in Hawaii is between $8 billion and $10 billion. The fires won’t just have an immediate impact on residents, their homes and businesses, but weigh on tourism going forward, AccuWeather said.
Read: Maui Wildfires Could Hit Tourism Industry Hard. Some Stocks to Watch.
Business decisions, government planning must factor in climate change
Notably, it was also changing business conditions that helped fan the flames on Maui. The historic pineapple plantations that made Hawaii an agricultural center decades ago have been closed in recent years as it became cheaper to plant elsewhere, resulting in thousands of acres of empty grasslands, susceptible to fire, wrote David Callaway, editor of climate-focused investing newsletter Callaway Climate Insights.
“How [climate change disaster] translates to financial sector risk — and pending risk disclosure regulations — are the key questions heading into the autumn,” said Callaway.
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.
As Inside Climate News notes, a wake-up call sounded in 2018, when the U.S.’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.
But one of the most alarming wildfires to watch in the U.S. was another in 2021 that gobbled up a largely open-plain, newly built subdivision development in the populated suburbs of Boulder, Colo.
“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,” writes Inside Climate News editor Kristoffer Tigue. “Officials could do little to contain the destruction.”
How thoroughly communities and individual homeowners think about fire risks, especially where developed areas meet natural surroundings, is only growing more vital.
“This is a repeating pattern we’ve seen over, and over, (and over) again in wildland-urban interface fire catastrophes around the world in recent years. It has become painfully familiar to those who study wildfire disasters from a weather, climate and fire behavior perspective,” said Dr. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, writing in a tweet.
There are hundreds of small- to medium-sized towns and even some cities still at risk of similar events in the future without stepping up their preparedness, he said. Some locales are where you’d expect, for instance, in the perennially flammable foothills of California.
But other at-risk spots would probably surprise even those who live there.
“Lesser-known candidate regions in the U.S.? How about the New Jersey pine barrens and coastal towns downwind? Or the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge mountains in North Carolina? And even the dense forests of the Upper Midwest, in northern Minnesota or Wisconsin,” says Swain.
The Associated Press contributed.