An island on fire: Understanding the wildfire that devastated Lahaina, Hawai’i, in 2023

May 21, 2024

In light of the FSRI’s latest report, FSJA looks at the rapid escalation of Lahaina’s wildfire and broader implications for emergency management

On August 8-9, 2023, the scenic town of Lahaina on the island of Maui was engulfed by one of the most lethal wildfires in the history of the United States.

The Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI) has since identified the cause as a confluence of environmental and geographic factors, combined with preparedness and response conditions that enabled the fire to rapidly intensify into an urban conflagration, highlighting the rapid escalation that led to overwhelming devastation.

This catastrophic event resulted in the tragic loss of 101 lives, with extensive damage to homes and businesses, ripping through the community’s fabric.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Hawai’i Department of the Attorney General sought the expertise of the FSRI to untangle the complex web of events that led to such extensive damage.

In April 2024, Hawaiߵi state officials released the Lahaina Fire Comprehensive Timeline Report, the first phase of an independent analysis conducted by the FSRI.

This analysis spans the crucial period from the afternoon of August 8 to the morning of August 9, 2023, and includes comparative data from three other fires on Maui to contextualize the severity and particularity of the Lahaina incident.

This report collected data from diverse sources including as radio communications, video footage, emergency logs, and direct communications like texts and emails.

Additionally, data from automatic vehicle location applications and social media posts were integral to mapping the sequence of events.

The primary objective of FSRI’s report was to create a definitive record of the events that transpired, setting the stage for deeper analysis and the derivation of critical lessons.

The initial report is foundational, focusing on establishing a detailed timeline and the contextual factors at play without delving into causation.

It is the first in a series intended that dissects the factors that contributed to the tragedy and hopes to enhance future responses and community resilience.

Conditions and catastrophe

In the lead-up to the disastrous fire in Lahaina, Maui was on high alert.

Hurricane Dora, though distant, exerted influence over local weather conditions.

The report stated: “As Hurricane Dora approached from the south, passing approximately 500 miles offshore, it created a pressure gradient that meteorologists warned would bring damaging winds, low humidity, and an elevated risk of wildfires to the island.”

Several key agencies, including the National Weather Service and the Maui County Emergency Management Agency, responded by issuing warnings and partially activating the Emergency Operations Center to brace for the impending conditions.

On the morning of August 8, 2023, the predicted high winds wreaked havoc in Maui, knocking down trees and power lines and complicating any potential evacuation efforts.

The FSRI report chronicles how these conditions facilitated the outbreak and rapid spread of the fire.

“A fire that began near the Lahaina Intermediate School spread rapidly, overwhelming initial efforts to contain it,” the report states.

The swift response by firefighters, who utilized bulldozers and water tankers to combat the fire, initially seemed to stop the blaze.

However, this early success proved brief, as later events would tragically demonstrate.

The relative calm of the early afternoon was broken when the fire rekindled at the same location.

Named the “Lahaina PM fire” or “Ku’ialua fire,” it was far more destructive due to the continuing high winds which propelled the flames through the town with ferocious speed.

“Embers carried by the wind ignited unburned grassland areas downwind from the initial fire location and continued to spread, reaching homes and other structures,” explains the FSRI report.

The fire’s rapid progression overwhelmed Lahaina’s infrastructure, blocking key evacuation routes and trapping residents.

The dire situation forced many to seek refuge in the ocean as the only escape from the encroaching flames.

The chaos was compounded by poor visibility from smoke, which hampered rescue efforts.

“Smoke, pushed low to the ground by the wind, made visibility difficult and soon overwhelmed the efforts of police and firefighters to evacuate the area,” the report noted.

Roads such as Hawai’i Route 3000 and Lahainaluna Road became impassable, leading to scenes of desperation as residents sought any available means to escape the fire.

Overcoming obstacles

As the fire was moving quickly and roadways remained blocked, several crews of firefighters became trapped near Pauoa Street by the advancing fire and were overwhelmed by flames, the report explained.

The severity of the fire escalated as it transitioned from a wildfire to an urban fire, indiscriminately consuming residential and commercial structures.

This situation was exacerbated by the creation of additional hazards as burning structures, vehicles, and vegetation all produced embers and became sources of radiant heat and flames, contributing further to the rapid spread of the fire across critical areas, including Honoapi’ilani Highway, and reaching the ocean’s edge.

As the fire swept through Lahaina, critical infrastructure began to fail, adding another layer of complexity to the firefighting efforts.

The FSRI report details significant utility disruptions: “As homes and other buildings burned, the water pipes failed and water flowed unrestricted.”

This led to a catastrophic drop in water pressure, rendering fire hydrants in some parts of Lahaina useless at a critical time.

Lessons and long-term implications

The devastating fire in Lahaina prompts a critical examination of current emergency preparedness and response systems.

The FSRI report highlights significant concerns:  “Questions linger about the adequacy of warning systems, evacuation planning, and the preparedness of communities for such extreme fire events.”

This tragedy underlines the urgent need for enhanced systems that can more effectively manage the risks associated with wildfires, which are exacerbated by climate change and increasing urban development into fire-prone wildland areas.

Future research

Looking ahead, FSRI has outlined a comprehensive approach to learning from this tragedy through a series of reports.

The forthcoming Incident Analysis Report will delve into detailed conditions that influenced the fire’s progression, evaluate evacuation efforts, and assess the effectiveness of fire suppression techniques.

This phase aims to combine scientific analysis with local expertise to provide a thorough understanding of the disaster’s dynamics and the efficacy of the response.

The final phase, the Forward-Looking Report, will focus on preventative measures and resilience building.

“This report will help answer critical questions about, ‘How do we prevent this from happening again?'” FSRI said.

Components of this phase will include an assessment of the Maui County Fire Department’s capabilities, a comprehensive risk analysis, and strategies for community risk reduction.

Additionally, a review of fire and building codes will be conducted to ensure that they are robust enough to mitigate future fire risks effectively.

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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