August 15, 2023

Maui Wildfires

Wildfires on Hawaii's Maui have killed at least 96 people, forced tens of thousands of residents and tourists to evacuate the island and devastated the historic resort city of Lahaina. It's the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.” Reuters

Both sides criticize the local disaster response:

“Consider Rhodes, Greece, an island roughly the same length and width as Maui… Last month several fires broke out in Rhodes… [But] there was only one casualty, a volunteer firefighter. There were evacuation orders from the Greek emergency communications service, known as 112… The service doesn’t require an app or subscription; the messages go to all cellphones in an area at risk, in Greek and in English…

“In Maui, many people didn’t receive timely warnings from the local system, which ‘relied on a series of sometimes confusing social media posts,’ according to the Associated Press. Some survivors have reported receiving no warning messages before the fire reached them, while others said messages appeared and then disappeared from their mobile phones and they couldn’t find instructions. In a state that rolled out sirens and emergency alerts for tsunamis more than 60 years ago, and where sirens are tested every month, there were reportedly no sirens in the melee that followed the fire.”
Costas Synolakis, Wall Street Journal

“A previous report stated that a 2018 brush fire, which forced residents to evacuate homes and burned more than 2,000 acres of land, should be a ‘real world wake-up call’. As was the case in last week’s catastrophe, that blaze occurred in drought conditions, amid high winds from a hurricane traversing the Pacific Ocean. Yet when the worst came to pass in Lahaina, warning sirens failed to work and the island’s firefighting force was ill‑equipped and overstretched…

“Hawaiian Electric, the utility which oversees electricity provision to the vast majority of Maui residents, also has questions to answer… In states such as California, where a catastrophic wildfire destroyed a mountain town in 2018, electricity is now cut off altogether to areas where wind risks triggering a conflagration. Hawaiian Electric has previously acknowledged the effectiveness of this precautionary approach. But it chose last week to keep power lines energised despite weather warnings, a decision which is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit… [Lessons will need] to be learned in the wake of the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history.”
Editorial Board, The Guardian

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