Opinion | Maui and the Age of the Urban Firestorm

It wasn’t even really a wildfire. By the time the flames passed through Lahaina, Hawaii — burning a legendary 150-year-old Banyan tree and throwing embers so far forward that when residents jumped into the ocean for relief they saw the hulls of boats floating among them on fire, too — it had long since left the wild land behind. Instead it had become another instance of what the climate scientist Daniel Swain memorably called the return of the “urban firestorm.”

The string of examples is growing: the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 2017, the Camp fire in Paradise, Calif., the following year, and the Marshall fire in Boulder County, Colo., in 2021, which after burning through a lot of nearby vegetation made a jump to a shopping center with a Costco and a Chuck E. Cheese and ultimately destroyed more than 1,000 homes. You might think of these events as having two ignitions: the first when the natural landscape begins to burn, from a lightning strike or a dropped match or a downed power line, and the second when that fire, often supercharged by climate conditions, makes the jump to buildings and cars and other forms of modern infrastructure — and keeps burning.

In general, we’ve long believed the built environment offered formidable firebreaks, and worried over what might be lost when fires passed near homes as a form of tragic collateral damage. But increasingly, fires emerging hotter and more intense from the natural landscape are burning human structures not as collateral but as fuel — jumping from home to home as earlier fires would jump from tree crown to tree crown, with vegetation, Swain told me when I interviewed him in the wake of the Marshall fire for New York magazine, acting only as a wick. These firestorms may seem like a harbinger, he said, but they are also a throwback — to a time a century or more ago, when towns and cities, in a time of wood-frame buildings and pre-modern firefighting, regularly stared down the threat of incineration by flame.

The Maui disaster has already become the deadliest American fire in over a century, surpassing the Camp fire, which incinerated 18,000 homes and structures and claimed 85 lives, with most of the damage coming in the first few hours of the fire. As of Tuesday, the official death toll in Maui was 99, but almost 1 percent of all residents remained unaccounted for, and many locals were suggesting the death toll could increase significantly in the days ahead. The Hawaiian islands are no stranger to fire, and for years fire scientists and fire officials and even the local utility had warned of risk in this particular area, including that a wildfire could draft off exceptional wind provided by a passing typhoon. A climate lawsuit launched by the island against Big Oil in 2020 specifically cited additional wildfire risk. But still, when the fire broke out, almost no one seemed adequately prepared. It grew almost immediately from nearby grassland into a massive urban conflagration, and first-person accounts were almost too grim to read, as were reports that early-warning alarms had not sounded and that cell reception — on which we all now depend, especially in times of crisis and low-information panic — and 911 service had been quickly lost as well.

When Americans contemplate climate futures for South Florida and Southern California, they may remind themselves that each was a “paradise” built on inhospitable desert, on the one hand, or swamp, on the other, on the basis of a sales pitch and a mirage — and sustained, at least for a time, by heroic infrastructure designed to keep the dream alive. In Hawaii the landscape has also been radically transformed, including in ways that may well have contributed to this nightmare fire. But fewer Americans see the story of a “built” Hawaii as clearly, imagining the archipelago as even more of an “untouched” landscape — which is to say timeless, and even unchanged.

Almost as soon as the smoke cleared, before we’d even gotten a clear sense of the horrifying toll, there were arguments about just how to describe what had happened, and how much to attribute the tragedy to climate change. Terrifying winds which may have reached 80 miles per hour had been supercharged by a passing hurricane, and likely even downed power lines that some believe sparked the fires. The landscape had been made much more flammable by the spread of nonnative grassland, and though many pointed to drought as a contributing factor to the flammability of the landscape in recent months, the drought does not appear to have been all that exceptional.

Perhaps that all should sound like a kind of reassurance, because if warming is only partially to blame then that, in theory, suggests a more manageable job of adaptation: scaling the mountain we see rather than one growing beneath our feet.

But this is always how climate works — not single-handedly but together with randomness and existing hazard, and by making familiar risks worse. It doesn’t change the scale of the tragedy to know that it could have been foreseen, or that it had many authors beyond warming, and the larger problem is we are simply not responding to complex threats like these all that adequately almost anywhere, including those places where rising risks are perhaps most incontrovertible. In Bangladesh, population flows point directly into the floodplain; in Florida, the same is true. Across America, 59 million homes lie within one kilometer of a recent fire, and between 1990 and 2015 more than 30 million homes were added to the most fire-prone regions of the country.

In earlier eras those burn scars would’ve offered a perverse reassurance, since it was believed that forests would take a few decades to regrow sufficiently to produce another major fire. These days we are seeing evidence of much shorter intervals — and building there anyway. In 2021 and 2022, according to Redfin data analyzed by Bloomberg, the number of Americans moving into ZIP codes with the highest risk of flood, heat or fire increased in each category over the years 2019 and 2020. According to a separate analysis, 55 percent of American homes built this decade are at risk from wildfires, compared to just 14 percent of homes built between 1900 and 1959. Insurers are already changing their behaviors, and pretty dramatically. The rest of us aren’t doing all that much yet.

In Lahaina, when the inferno came, the alarms didn’t even go off. If they had, would it have been enough?

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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