- Scientists put forward a new theory about the cause of the deadliest wildfire in US history that broke out in west Maui on August 8
- The theory debunks previous speculation linking the wildfire to nearby Hurricane Dora, which hit the island
- Lab models show wildfire fueled by the same weather phenomenon behind California’s worst wildfires — a downwind windstorm
Nearly four months after the Lahaina fire ravaged Maui — leaving 100 people dead and 6,000 still homeless — scientists have offered a new theory about the cause of the deadliest wildfire in American history.
The theory debunks previous speculation linking the wildfire to nearby Hurricane Dora, which hit the island.
According to laboratory models, the wildfire was actually fueled by the same weather phenomenon responsible for California’s most destructive wildfires — a downslope windstorm.
Videos documenting the fire revealed a wind-driven firestorm, but power outages during the storm left scientists unsure of the factors that caused the devastation.
Atmospheric researchers simulated the weather and fire trends in west Maui on August 8 to better understand what made the Lahaina fire so destructive.
In Lahaina, the main cause of the devastating fires was a strong high-pressure system north of Hawaii that strengthened easterly trade winds, researchers said.
When these winds encountered high mountains in West Maui, they accelerated as they traveled down, reaching hurricane force in Lahaina. This pattern is known as a downslope windstorm.
Small changes in normal summer weather can lead to severe wildfires on Maui.
Simulations by the University of Nevada-Rino and the State University of New York at Buffalo show that sustained winds in Lahaina on Aug. 8 were nearly 80 mph, with occasional gusts possibly exceeding 90 mph.
Studies by the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington also simulated similar wind speeds.
Cliff Mass, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor who simulated the Maui event, said the combination of flammable fuels, high winds and an ignition source is a recurring recipe for destructive fires.
“There’s a real story here for Californians because what happened in Maui, what happened in the Marshall Fire, what happened in Paradise … they’re the same thing,” Mass told the San Fransisco Chronicle.
The situation in Lahaina included a wet winter followed by a dry summer, which caused grasses to grow exceptionally in the spring, creating dense fuels ready to burn.
Similar conditions are often found in California, where winter rains lead to grass growth before it dries up in the summer and fall.
California winds, such as Santa Anas in Southern California and Diablos in the Bay Area, typically occur in the fall when dry grasses increase fire risk.
Officials said in August that 271 buildings were damaged or destroyed and that dozens of people were injured.
Nearly 6,200 people are still struggling to find housing as their beloved town of Maui tries to rebuild.
The housing emergency intensified, with thousands desperately searching for a home after being stranded in 33 hotels, according to the American Red Cross.
Among them is a retiree who repeatedly moves between shelters with a family of five, struggling to afford the cost, according to the Washington Post.
Others are living in unlicensed rentals until the end of the month, when financial constraints are likely to force them off the islands.
Many people are also camping on the beach, advocating for permanent housing solutions for fire survivors.
A Lahaina resident of 25 years plans to move to Florida with her husband, mother, two children and three dogs so the insurance payout on their destroyed home will take longer.
“This is the saddest Christmas we’ll ever have,” Amy Chadwick told the Washington Post. “We are the first phase of a mass exodus. If something doesn’t change, thousands and thousands of people will leave.
Wildfire, local, state and federal government agencies are working tirelessly to find solutions to the escalating housing crisis, but many residents said at the exit that they feel they have not been able to act quickly enough.