“Hawaiians know to prepare well in advance for hurricanes but not for simultaneous wildfires,” the state’s lieutenant governor, Sylvia Luke, said a day after multiple fires swept across the island of Maui. The fires left thousands homeless and killed at least 106 people in the historic town of Lāhainā. Hundreds are still missing as I write this, and officials expect the death toll to rise. The disaster has earned the grim distinction as the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than a century, surpassing California’s 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people.
It’s incredibly hard to wrap our minds around the fact that we are living in a radically altered world. Which is why, despite multiple warnings over the past years that Maui was at high risk of wildfires, neither Hawaiian officials nor the public were ready for what came down the line. Photo by Eric Tessmer /Flickr.
That wildfires this destructive can occur on a tropical island chain known for its lush green hills, its rainforests, has taken most of us, including many islanders, by surprise. It shouldn’t have.
Hawai‘i is experiencing more frequent and intense grass and shrubland fires. According to the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, over the past century the state’s average area burned per year has increased a whopping 400 percent, a dramatic increase resulting from multiple factors: vast swaths of untended former sugarcane and pineapple plantations that have been overrun with nonnative, fire-prone grasses; declining rainfall; more frequent droughts.
Wildfire specialists have warned about Hawai‘i’s growing vulnerability for years. Maui County had known that Lāhainā was at high fire risk since at least 2018. As the Honolulu Civil Beat reports, the county’s 2020 hazard mitigation plan says that West Maui had a 90 percent chance of annual wildfires. The fires broke out during a National Weather Service warning of “red flag” conditions. Yet, neither Hawaiian officials nor the public were ready for what came down the line.
The tragedy in Maui resembles the ways weather-related disasters are playing out across our warming planet. As journalist John Valliant writes in his new book Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World, it’s not just that our cities and towns are built for a different era, it’s our mindset. We can’t wrap our minds around the fact that things are not as before, that our world has been radically altered by capitalism and our appetite for fossil fuels.
Other changes, too, tax our natural and political systems: As Santiago Wills reports in this issue, jaguars in Suriname are in danger as criminal networks outrun international policing (pg. 48). Sage Agee examines the ideology of dominion that underpins Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign (pg. 28), leading to anti-trans and anti-climate positions. And Jared D. Margulies chronicles the unintended consequences of succulent collection, as rare cacti disappear before our eyes (pg. 18).
These are trying times. And we must act. Indeed, many are. As Managing Editor Zoe Loftus-Farren writes, legal fights for a healthy environment are ramping up (pg. 36). And as Kahea Pacheco, an advocate for Indigenous rights, reminds us, hope is bolstered by our care for the world over long timelines (pg. 56).
The Pyrocene, the age of fire, is upon us. This is clear. But we can learn to live within it. And to keep working for a better world.
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