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Stop Calling This a 'Natural Disaster'
The Maui fire is not the result of some inevitable act of nature. It's the result of conscious human activity.
As of this writing, 96 people have been declared dead as a result of the wildfires in Maui. That number is almost certain to rise. It’s the deadliest wildfire in the United States since 1918. The precious historical heritage of the society that Native Hawaiians built before American colonization has been severely devastated. Rebuilding will take an enormous amount of time and money; simply restoring electricity is going to take weeks.
The default phrase for something like this is “natural disaster,” and that phrase is being dutifully trotted out to describe the Maui fires. Everywhere you look, the fires are being called some form of “the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history.”
Inherent in that phrase is the idea that this is an inevitable, if terrible, part of life. It’s only “natural” that the world goes up in flames every so often, right? This is the way it goes, a grim but unavoidable cycle that is as old as the planet itself.
That is clearly true in some ways. Wildfires happen, and hurricanes happen, and earthquakes happen, and they have always happened and always will happen. But perhaps it is time, now that we have so clearly moved into an era where the effects of climate change are bearing down on us in ever-more-apocalyptic ways, that we rethink the term “natural disaster,” because what is happening to this planet is as unnatural as it is possible to be. And the Maui fires are a perfect example.
As Heated’s Emily Atkin and Wired reported, the conditions that caused the fires to rage so unbelievably out of control were, at every level, the partial result of decisions taken by human beings over hundreds of years.
The areas that have now been burned to the ground actually used to be wetlands. That was the “natural” state of things, the way nature intended this part of the world to be. Then humans got involved. From Wired (emphasis mine throughout):
When Europeans arrived in the late 18th century and established plantations for growing sugarcane and pineapple, they also brought invasive grasses. Now the economics have changed, and those fields lie fallow. But the grasses have spread like a plague. “Those fire-prone invasive species fill in any gaps anywhere else—roadsides, in between communities, in between people’s homes, all over the place,” says Pickett. “At this point, 26 percent of our state is covered in these fire-prone grasses.”
This stuff is highly sensitive to short-term fluctuations in rainfall. The grass will grow like crazy when the rains come, then quickly desiccate when the landscape dries. “When we get these events like we’re seeing these past few days—when the relative humidity really drops low—all those fine fuels become very explosive,” says fire ecologist Clay Trauernicht of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
Rising global temperatures and drought have helped turn parts of Hawaii into a tinderbox ahead of one of the deadliest fires in modern US history, with these conditions worsened by strong winds from a nearby cyclone.
Katharine Hayhoe, the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, said that global heating is causing vegetation to dry out, priming it as fuel for an outbreak of fire. “Climate change doesn’t usually start the fires; but it intensifies them, increasing the area they burn and making them much more dangerous,” Hayhoe tweeted.
Nearly a fifth of Maui, the Hawaiian island where the fires have occurred, is in severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. The island has experienced other serious fires in recent years, with blazes in 2018 and 2021 razing hundreds of homes and causing the evacuation of thousands of residents and tourists.
Experts say that wildfires in Hawaii are now burning through four times the amount of area than in previous decades, in part due to the proliferation of more flammable non-native grasses but also rising global temperatures.
These are not just ordinary droughts. Maui is also being subjected to something called “flash droughts,” a phenomenon whose growth is widely seen as linked to climate change. From the Associated Press:
Flash droughts are so dry and hot that the air literally sucks moisture out of the ground and plants in a vicious cycle of hotter-and-drier that often leads to wildfires. And Hawaii’s situation is a textbook case, two scientists told The Associated Press.
As of May 23, none of Maui was unusually dry; by the following week it was more than half abnormally dry. By June 13 it was two-thirds either abnormally dry or in moderate drought. And this week about 83% of the island is either abnormally dry or in moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor.
Even the tools needed to fight the fires are being affected by the change in the environment. The New York Times reported on Sunday that, when the fire broke out, firefighters rushed to tap the area’s fire hydrants, only to find that the hydrants “sputtered and became largely useless.” Part of the reason for that? From the Times:
The water system in Lahaina relies on both surface water from a creek and groundwater pumped from wells. Persistent drought conditions combined with population growth have already led officials at the state and local level to explore ways to shore up water supplies, and they broke ground on a new well two months ago to increase capacity.
John Stufflebean, the county’s director of water supply, said backup generators allowed the system to maintain sufficient overall supply throughout the fire. But he said that as the fire began moving down the hillside, turning homes into rubble, many properties were damaged so badly that water was spewing out of their melting pipes, depressurizing the network that also supplies the hydrants.
To recap: an environment that had been turned by people from a lush wetland into a welcome home for fires; was being plagued by extreme droughts that are exacerbated by climate change; and whose main tool to fight the fire was being impacted by those droughts, has been engulfed by flame. And this is all before you get to the clearly extensive lapses in basic emergency response from state and local governments, and the failure to properly plan for such overwhelming fires.
What, precisely, is “natural” about any of this? Virtually every facet of this tragedy has some connection to human activity. Human beings systematically created the conditions for the fire to happen. Human beings systematically created the conditions for the fire to rage so indiscriminately. Human beings systematically took a beautiful, balanced ecosystem and tampered with it so destructively that it has now lost its mind.
To call this a “natural disaster” is to accept the obviously false notion that this is a situation somehow beyond our control—because what use is it to go up against nature itself? But we have predicated the entirety of human advancement on the notion that the environment all around us is subservient. We have taken a planet that developed over billions of years and irrevocably altered just about every part of it in a relative blink of a geological eye. We are living in the world that we made, and we are living with the consequences of our choices.
It is high time that we stop indulging in the fantasy that, when tragedies like the Maui fires break out, we are fighting an implacable, faceless, inexplicable enemy. These are no longer “natural disasters,” not really. The only natural disaster that we are really fighting anymore is ourselves.