Updated Aug 10, 2023 - Energy & Environment

The climate link to Hawaii's wildfire tragedy

Historic Waiola Church and the nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames yesterday in Lahaina, Hawaii. Photo: Matthew Thayer/The Maui News via AP

Researchers say climate change has likely been a contributing factor to the deadly wildfires in Hawaii.

Why it matters: A summer of blistering, record-breaking heat has also seen wildfires scorching Canada forests, with smoke drifting south and blanketing the skies of cities in the Northeast.

  • Increased wildfire risk is also a symptom of human-caused climate change, scientists say.
  • Dry conditions in certain parts of the island have amplified the wildfire risk, observers say.

What they're saying: "As always with wildfires, there are multiple interacting causes and climate is only a thumb on the scale," Stanford University climate researcher Marshall Burke tells Axios via email.

The big picture: At least 36 people have been killed in a blaze that swept parts of Maui, Hawaii, which experienced a tropical storm early in the season, is currently seeing high winds that are fanning the flames.

Burke notes the south and west of Maui was "exceptionally dry, which meant that fuels were more flammable than normal."

  • "As with most droughts, climate is...not the only cause, but an amplifier, typically via hot temperatures," Burke says.
  • "Climate change likely contributed to the drought, and the drought contributed to making extreme wildfire activity more likely."

Zoom in: Multiple researchers are drawing similar conclusions. Per the New York Times:

  • "Experts attribute the surge in wildfires to the prevalence of nonnative grasses, which are especially common on Maui, and are more flammable than indigenous plants."
  • "This is coupled with extreme weather patterns connected to climate change: unusually hot and dry summers and shifts in rainfall patterns."

Go deeper: What we know about the deadly Hawaii wildfires

Go deeper