The Tragic Fires of Lahaina

Maui Map
The Tragic Fires of Lahaina Destroyed the Storefronts
Lahaina storefronts before the fire
The tragic fires of Lahaina destroyed the train station
Lahaina train station before the fire

Those who have not been to Maui may be unable to comprehend the tragic fires of Lahaina and what happened there. I lectured on Maui several times, visited Lahaina, and even lived in the area for a short time in Kehei. Knowing the area, I can understand the conditions leading to the wildfire that destroyed the town and killed so many people.

Maui is a beautiful island. There are two huge mountains and two primary sections of the island. Haleakala is a popular tourist area with a road to Hana on the east side of a volcanic mountain where there are many gardens and lush vegetation. The other side is a barren area of relatively recent lava flows.

On the island’s northern side, a mountain area known as Kahakuloa has an observatory at the top. Lahaina is located on the west side of this mountain. I worked with a church on the east side of Haleakala, a wet area with lush vegetation. Between these two mountains is a relatively flat area with the villages of Waikapu and Pounene and the main shopping area for locals and tourists.

Unlike Haleakala, Kahakuloa has weathered igneous rock on its west side, which has led to soil capable of supporting crops, primarily sugar cane. When we were there, the growers used fire to remove the processed sugar cane. The area was very dry, with a vast cattle ranch and people living in open houses and sheds because rain was infrequent.

What we have described here is a classic example of a rain shadow. Moist air moves up the sides of the two mountains, and as it cools, it drops its water as rain. All the moisture is gone by the time it gets to the top of the mountains. As a result, very dry air goes over the mountain and cascades down the other side, creating desert-like conditions. This is not an area to attract tourists, but with irrigation, it’s a productive agricultural area.

A fire on the mountain’s east side would not spread since lush green trees and grass do not burn easily. On the mountain’s west side, any dead cane, grass, or bushes would be great tinder. People must plan for climate changes, avoiding towns where drought conditions can produce the tragic fires of Lahaina.

Agriculture must use places to plant crops based on understanding the movement of air and water. The tragic fires of Lahaina were not an act of God but the result of human mismanagement of what God has given us. The question is whether we will learn from our mistakes or repeat them.

— John N. Clayton © 2023