WALKER: Americans Deserve Better Than Climate Change Lies. Here’s What Really Caused The Maui Wildfires

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Kristen Walker Contributor
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The wildfires that raged on Maui are a sad and tragic event that will no doubt take years to overcome and rebuild. The most serious blaze swept through the coastal town of Lahaina, where almost every building has been destroyed.

But the powerful flames of the state’s deadliest wildfire hadn’t even finished their devastation before alarmists began spouting climate change rhetoric.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, climate enthusiast and gas-powered vehicle cynic, lamented that “Californians know firsthand the devastating toll of catastrophic wildfires fueled by climate change.”

Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono pointed fingers at climate change and attacked states she claims “still have a head-in-the-sand attitude” toward climate issues.

California Representative Ro Khanna called on President Biden to declare a “climate emergency” in response to the fires.

Even Hawaii’s governor Joshua Green couldn’t resist. “That level of destruction, and a fire hurricane, something new to us in this age of global warming, was the ultimate reason that so many people perished.”

Several left-wing media outlets such as The New York TimesBloomberg and Washington Post didn’t let the opportunity go to waste either.

Missing from most of these claims are facts based on reality. And reality says there is so much more to the story.

Lahaina literally means “cruel sun.” This part of Maui has always been hot and dry and is subject to wild brush fires.

Hawaii has vast areas of unmanaged, nonnative grasslands from decades of declining agriculture. Professor Vitousek of Stanford says, “There is no doubt that fire-prone grasses have invaded drier Hawaiian ecosystems and brought larger, more intense fires.”

Clay Trauernicht, professor and environmental management expert at the University of Hawaii agrees. “Blaming this on weather and climate is misleading.” He even warned about this scenario four years ago in Maui News.

Maui was at great risk.

As Maui’s pineapple and sugar cane plantations were abandoned (in the 1980s), they quickly became dominated by invasive annual grasses that flourish and are highly flammable, even in the most moderate winds. With only 15 inches of annual rainfall, compared to the eastern side’s 300, Lahaina’s surrounding grassland vegetation is primed each summer to burn rapidly due to the lack of moisture.

Incidentally, wildfires have quadrupled in Hawaii in recent decades, and Hawaii is considered very fire-prone. Drought is unfortunately not uncommon either, and Maui is currently experiencing a severe one.

Additionally, wet seasons create higher fire danger by increasing the abundance of grasses, which dries and dies within days during the dry season. This past spring was cooler and wetter than normal, which led to a high grass fuel load.

“We should not look to the Maui wildfires as a poster child of the link to climate change,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The way that wildland and vegetation coincide in urban areas likely also played a role in how fast the wildfires spread.”

“Natural climate variability in Hawaii is very large and picking out the human-induced climate change signs is really difficult,” Abby Frazier, a climatologist at Clark University in Massachusetts, says. “The main factor driving the fires involved the invasive grasses that cover huge parts of Hawaii, which are extremely flammable.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wildfires actually have the “lowest confidence” among natural disasters that researchers attribute to climate change.

High winds from Hurricane Dora likely helped turn the fire into a fast-moving inferno. Since Aug 4, the U.S. National Weather Service was noting that combined with drought, Dora’s winds would create dangerous fire-weather conditions. A Red Flag warning was issued for the area on Aug 7.

While the exact cause of the fire could be undetermined for weeks, it is believed that downed power lines were a factor. This electrical hazard combined with a ripe tinderbox of dead flammable grass is a recipe for disaster.

Instead of pointing the finger at climate change, we ought to look at the real threat on the ground: a poorly-managed, out-of-control landscape. Citizens would be better served by mitigating against potential damage from wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters. In fact, according to FEMA, mitigation has a payback of six to seven dollars saved for every dollar invested.

In Hawaii’s case, that would mean clearing out flammable debris and planting vegetation that is more fire resistant. As far back as 2014, a wildfire protection plan warned of the risks in this area and made specific recommendations to mitigate this risk. Later, the 2021 Maui County Report called for an “aggressive plan to replace these hazardous fuel sources with native plants.” Meaningful action is long past due.

What happened in Maui is heartbreaking. We need not let history repeat itself.

Kristen Walker is a policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org or follow it on Twitter @ConsumerPal.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.