On Tuesday morning, an herbalist named Spice Prince was at his shop in Lahaina, Hawaii, preparing for the launch of a new perfume line, when gnarly winds started to topple trees and power lines in his neighborhood. After an exhausting few hours of damage control, he fell asleep on the floor with his dog. Then the smell of smoke woke him up.
Prince has lived on the island of Maui for thirty-five years, he said, since Lahaina had only one street light. He saw billowing dark clouds, but the power was out, so he couldn’t find out what was happening. He ran to Front Street, the main road, and was met with gridlock—no one was getting anywhere. He rushed back to get his computer, as the air started to darken. “It just started getting so black,” he told me. He knocked on his neighbor’s door, saying, “We’ve got to go!” But his neighbor had cats and didn’t want to leave. “He just shut the door in my face,” Prince recalled. Over the phone, I could hear him start to sob.
“I ran with my dog in my backpack, in my shorts and flip-flops,” Prince told me. The world was an inferno. “It wasn’t like a flame—it was just, like, dragon-breath orange.” He walked up a mountain road in the night, leaving behind all of his herbs, plants, elixirs, surfboards, and a collection of vintage hunting bows. “I’ve gathered medicines since I was six years old—I’ve lost it all,” he said. “It’s like I’m coming out of the womb, starting my life over with nothing.”
Lahaina is now almost completely gone. “It’s like a nuclear bomb went off,” Michiko Smith, who grew up in Lahaina and fled through the fires, told me, on Thursday. In just a few hours, the confluence of a high-pressure system to Maui’s north, and the low pressure linked to Hurricane Dora, five hundred miles to the south, created raging, dry downslope winds that fanned flames and blasted them into town. People fled through blaze after blaze—some were stuck in a traffic jam leading to Kahului, others were jumping in the ocean—all facing the real possibility of burning alive. Smith’s sister Ariana had to walk barefoot out of town as homes exploded around her.
At least fifty-five people were killed, and many more remain missing. On Thursday, in the early afternoon, President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Hawaii, opening streams of federal aid and sending in the Coast Guard, the Navy, the National Guard, and the U.S. Army. On Thursday night, Governor Josh Green declared the Lahaina fire “likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history.”
Was it natural? No one can yet say with certainty what sparked the first fires, although there is much discussion of the local electric company’s poorly maintained power lines and infrastructure. But what’s clear is why the blaze grew so colossal, so quickly. Lahaina was dry enough to burn, in part, because agriculture and development turned it into a tinderbox.
The island of Maui is shaped roughly like a turtle, and Lahaina, which means “cruel sun,” was once a riparian paradise on the south side of the turtle’s head. The West Maui Mountains above Lahaina contain one of the wettest places on the planet; Pu‘u Kukui, the highest peak, receives roughly three hundred and seventy-five inches of rain a year. In the late eighteenth century, a British captain called Lahaina the “Venice of the Pacific.” In the nineteenth century, Lahaina was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii; Moku‘ula, the home of Hawaiian royalty, was situated on a tiny island in the middle of a pond. But, when colonizers razed native forests to make room for sugarcane, pineapple, and cattle, the area dried out. Water from the mountains flowed into concrete irrigation ditches, instead of natural streams and aquifers. The pond was paved over for a parking lot.
Foreigners also brought new plants, replacing native vegetation with invasive species like fountain and guinea grasses, which have evolved to burn. When the sugarcane industry declined, landowners made no effort to restore their vast lands, or to rebuild streams. Some sold to developers, who built resorts and new subdivisions. Water management and control remained largely in the hands of private companies, which have hoarded resources. Although residents have, at times, had to ration water, hotels pump it into lawns, golf courses, and pools. “Not only has the landscape been changed to not retain as much water as it used to,” Willy Carter, a graduate student studying brush fires in Maui, told me, “but it’s getting sucked and diverted in the wrong directions, away from these local population centers.”
At a news conference addressing the fires, Green said, “Climate change is here, and it’s affecting the islands.” While connecting the warming world to any single catastrophe is always a challenge, the climate crisis, in many places, is undoubtedly responsible for warmer, drier conditions, leading to extreme weather and tragedy. Rising global temperatures have amplified preëxisting fire seasons in the American West, often to devastating ends. In Hawaii, however, fires were never a regular feature of the landscape. Instead, Carter told me that fires in recent years, and this horrifying week, were fuelled, in part, by persistent drought, and even more by human pressures on the island’s ecology. “This is so far from a natural process,” he said.
When the fire jumped the highway in Lahaina, Maranda Schossow, a lithe twenty-nine-year-old who likes to dance, was driving back to her Front Street apartment to get her two cats, Clio and Gianna, and whatever else she could grab. Schossow has lived in Lahaina for ten years. “I thought there was gonna be a little more time,” she told me, on Thursday evening, from the shelter of a packed house in Napili. As she drove down the highway bypass, she saw house after house burst into flames: “It happened in, like, thirty minutes. The street was so congested. No one knew what to do.” She couldn’t see any cops or officials.
Schossow started driving on the other side of the street, around other cars. Huge glowing pieces of ash started falling, and palm trees were burning. “Everything around me started going completely black, like it was midnight,” she said. “I couldn’t see a thing. I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m gonna be up in smoke soon.’ ” She drove a little farther, then parked on the sidewalk, unsure of whether to run or drive. If she got out of the car, she wondered, would she be able to breathe or would she pass out? Finally, fearing that her car would explode, she followed her instinct. “I told my car, ‘I love you,’ and I just started running down the street.”
A building in Schossow’s apartment complex, Lahaina Residential, was on fire, but hers wasn’t yet. “I said a prayer,” she said. “I was, like, ‘Just get the cats.’ I shoved them in one carrier. They’re both super fat, so I don’t even know how I could even carry them, but I think I just had extra-strength mode.” She ran as far as she could and then saw someone she knew, in a truck, who let her jump in the back. As they drove out, she saw people throwing themselves into the ocean. Parents were running, trying to shield their kids’ heads.
On Thursday evening, I reached Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, the sixty-year-old director of Nā ‘Aikāne o Maui Cultural Center, in Lahaina. He had just returned to the area as part of a supply convoy—stocked with water, food, diapers, hand wipes—for people who had not evacuated. “There’s a lot of stragglers,” he told me. “They’re like zombies right now.”
When we spoke, Kapu was standing on a hill near his home, looking for hot spots of lingering fire in the town below. At the time, some of his relatives were still missing. I asked him what he could see.
“Total devastation,” he said.
On Tuesday, after Kapu fled Lahaina, his son called him about the cultural center, which held stone artifacts, traditional drums, feather capes, and many sculptures by the wood carver Sam Kaha‘i Ka‘ai, whom the Hawaiian government has called a “living treasure.” In particular, the center housed two wooden sculptures that depicted a male and a female deity. Ka‘ai had carved them to grace the Hōkūleʻa, a traditional seagoing outrigger built in the seventies to revive the lost art of Polynesian voyaging.
“Dad, our cultural center burned to the ground,” his son told him.
Kapu had to call Ka‘ai and tell him the news. “He just went into tears,” Kapu told me, his voice catching. “We lost things that can’t ever be replaced.” ♦