SAN DIEGO – One week after fires first began their devastation on Maui, the death toll is reaching nearly 100 with hundreds still missing. Many people have wondered what exactly caused the quick-moving fires.
“This is basically an amplified event of the kinds of things and routinely happen in Lahaina,” said Pat Abbott, SDSU Professor Emeritus of Geology.
Low humidity and high winds set the stage for fire danger on Maui last week, with much of Hawaii under a red flag warning when the wildfires broke out.
Abbott explained how powerful winds were generated by Hurricane Dora, even hundreds of miles away from Hawaii.
“A hurricane forms by winds flowing in over the water surface and going up vertically carrying that moisture up with them, but they cover such a large area, hundreds of miles across. When you’re on the outer fringes it’s not rain you’re getting, getting the twirling winds going around the center,” Abbott said.
Gusts above 60 miles per hour knocked down power lines and damaged homes on Maui.
“The wind starts tearing places apart. There are very many things in our urban society that can spark to get a fire started and it’s probably going to take them months to figure it out, if they even can,” Abbott said.
The exact cause of the fire that tore through Lahaina is a mystery that may remain unsolved as Abbott points to Hurricane Lane in 2018. It brought destruction across the Hawaiian islands, including fires on Maui and Oahu.
“The fires five years ago, they never figured out the cause,” Abbott said.
Abbott says wind itself doesn’t cause a fire, but it is a driving factor. He also points to about 25% of Maui being grass from former farmland.
“The grass we talk about burning really fast, but where is the real heat, the fuel? It’s the wooden buildings and a lot of those things you’re going to run into like fossil fuels,” Abbott said.
Hurricane Lane affected the islands last August 2018. Flooding and landslides were the larger issue across Hawaii, but more than 20 homes burned on Maui. Hundreds of people evacuated, but there were no fatalities on Maui. Damages were estimated around 250 million across Hawaii.
Meanwhile, officials believe damages are estimated at billions of dollars after last week’s wildfires.