The most destructive natural disasters are never 100 percent natural. Human choices, land use, and government policies play a big role in how harmful hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, flash floods, and wildfires are to the affected communities.
And after catastrophes like the wildfire that destroyed much of the historic Hawaiian city of Lahaina last week, it’s worth taking stock of how much of the disaster was the result not of natural or accidental factors, but of policies and institutions that can be changed.
Though details are still emerging, it’s becoming clear that government failure did much to make this disaster worse—and possibly even started it. While the so-called experts are blaming climate change—and in the process demanding that government grab even more power and authority ostensibly to someday give us better weather—the destructiveness this fire was the product of an all-powerful and all-incompetent régime.
The specific origins of the fire are still being investigated, but there is much we already know. The city of Lahaina sits on the west coast of Maui, Hawaii’s second-largest island. It is surrounded by grassland, much of which the state owns.
Nearly a decade ago the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a research nonprofit, warned the Hawaiian government that the area around Lahaina was extremely fire-prone due to frequent downslope winds, steep terrain, and dry grass. Little was done to address these risks. A subsequent report in 2020 added that an invasive species of exceptionally flammable grass was prevalent in the surrounding fields and that passing hurricanes created strong winds known to fuel wildfires on the islands.
Early last week, Hurricane Dora crossed the ocean south of Hawaii. By early Tuesday morning, August 8, winds as fast as sixty miles per hour were blowing down the slopes of the West Maui Mountains into Lahaina. Around sunrise, a large fault was detected in the power grid, indicating a downed power line. Twenty minutes later, the first reports of fire came in from the area around Lahainaluna Road, uphill and upwind from the city.
The area where flames were first spotted is full of electrical infrastructure, mostly operated by Hawaiian Electric, the state’s monopoly electricity supplier. This included a substation and a multitude of power lines. Most of the land in the area is owned by the State of Hawaii except for a parcel belonging to the estate of one of Hawaii’s last princesses. This parcel housed a solar farm supplying electricity to the Hawaiian Electric substation. Early last year, NPR published a glowing article about the solar project, praising it the direct result of government regulation crafted to help transition Hawaii to 100 percent renewable power by 2045.