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23 Aug 2023 | News Roundup

While we were on vacation tragic wildfires swept the iconic Hawaiian island of Maui. And were promptly fanned into the usual global crisis by the usual suspects. None of whom, you’ll notice, predicted these fires ahead of time, any more than they did the Canadian ones that were very trendy a month ago. (Or those in Greece that they also pounced on while ignoring other considerations including… arson.) It doesn’t count that they predict fire everywhere then point to the places that actually burn, since they cannot explain why most of the United States is experiencing a quiet fire season, or why the overall planetary wildfire trend is downward and has been for decades. Nor can anyone blame CO2 for the government warning sirens evidently not being activated as the flames approached the town of Lahaina, or the water authorities delaying permission to divert stream water to refill reservoirs until after the fires were out of control. Or the chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency abruptly resigning for “health reasons”.

The fire has been serious. But to say it’s the worst loss of life “ever” falls into a series of traps including that we have, of course, no idea how many people died in fires in Hawaii prior to European contact. (The governor called it probably the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history, which only dates back to 1959, so never mind the 1946 tsunami.) And that Hawaii, though the eighth-smallest U.S. state geographically, is thirteenth in population density. So there are a lot of people, as well as buildings, potentially affected if fire sweeps through a place like Maui.

Which isn’t to say that people won’t try to blame everything on CO2. The Economist started off sensibly, explaining that Lahaina, former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, is in an unusually dry part of Maui and had been drier than usual, while “land-use change” was also crucial, with much abandonment of local farmland in recent decades leading to prolific growth of grasses and shrubs, including some invasives, and “the abandonment of land previously used for farming or raising livestock typically sees the fuel load on that land increase in a way that permits much more intense fires” as “has been a key factor in recent deadly fires in both America and the Mediterranean” too. And then high winds came along.

Climate change is increasingly the last refuge of scoundrels in authority who bungled their duties. For instance that business with the sirens. Also there were complaints that residents trying to flee the inferno were obstructed by Hawaiian Electric trucks working on power lines. And the thing where Lahaina’s fire hydrants ran dry. But the main thing is the failure to foresee, and react to, a situation that was very obviously brewing for reasons unrelated to climate, including the bit where dry grass accumulates, especially on abandoned agricultural land, if nobody does something about it. For instance the public authorities charged with managing such things, who also failed to manage fuel loads in Australia, Canada and so forth then said global warming did it.

As Cliff Mass explained (h/t Judith Curry) regarding Maui:

“The origin of this disaster is now becoming clear: massive amounts of dry, dead fuel (mainly grass), strong downslope winds produced by strong trades interacting with local mountains, and human ignition, most probably from powerlines.”

As he also noted, “There has been a lot of talk in the media about drought and even "flash drought" driven by climate change”. But what produced this bumper crop of dry grass was actually an especially wet winter.

One NBC story, on the threat to already beleaguered native plants from fire, even noted the paradox that these invasive species were often introduced to fight drought. But “This strategy, experts say, has backfired” because they pile up fire load and recover faster than the native plants. And of course, one expert told them, “Wildfires, becoming increasingly more common with climate change, leave permanent impacts on the land… With climate change, he said, we’re only going to see more of this kind of extreme weather.” Except all the places where we see less.

Still, experts rush in to say. As in NBC’s predictable take:

“The catastrophic wildfires in Hawaii that have killed at least 53 people in Maui and reduced much of a historic seaside town to ash were fueled by severe drought conditions and fierce, hurricane-strength winds — a confluence of extremes amplified by climate change that experts say quickly turned a bad situation into a worst-case scenario.”

And that someone, in this case The Times, would say:

“While the town [Lahaina] changed dramatically following the annexation of Hawaii by the US in 1898, it remained a spiritual and cultural anchor for Indigenous populations. But this week’s deadly wildfires have turned it to ash, with scientists saying that climate change and strong winds from the nearby Hurricane Dora were intensifying factors.”

The Washington Post chimed in with a mockery of the scientific method, asserting that:

“As scientists weigh the influence climate change may have had in fueling Hawaii’s wildfires, there isn’t one standout factor they point to. Rising temperatures likely contributed to the severity of the blaze in several ways. But global warming could not have driven the fires by itself. Maui is facing a compound disaster, where many different agents acted together to make the fires so horrific. As human influences on the climate and environment grow, the risk of these disasters is escalating.”

Somehow. Vaguely. We are all going to die. Even though, as Steve Milloy observed about this story, “National Weather Service data for Maui airport shows no unusual or special warming in 2023”.

Naturally the vultures at Heatmap swooped, cawing that:

“The wildfires that devastated Maui on Wednesday were exacerbated by strong winds intensified by a hurricane hundreds of miles offshore, according to meteorologists. While the precise relationship between the fires, the hurricane, and climate change has yet to be determined, these kinds of “compound” events are likely to increase in a warming world, with consequences that are hard to predict.”

In the old days we’d say the connections were “unknown”, now they’re “yet to be determined” and, for good measure, “likely to increase”. As in verdict first, trial after. And if they go down instead, they’ll find a way to pin that on CO2 too.

As the New York Times’ “Climate Forward” put it with unintentional irony:

“Hawaii’s islands are covered with lush tropical forests, some of the wettest places on the planet. It once seemed to be an unlikely place to be scorched by fire. But in a warming world, extreme weather disasters can happen anywhere.”

Indeed. As they can in a cooling world, witness the widespread devastation of the Little Ice Age. And what she’s saying is that they have no idea what might happen where, and when it does, they’ll claim they saw it coming.

5 comments on “Hawildfires”

  1. And the conspiracy theorists pounce, saying
    "they're setting the fires deliberately."
    "They know they're arson and they're intentionally suppressing that information."
    but those are 'conspiracy theories,' so they can't possibly be true. amirite?

  2. Blaming any and every extreme weather event on Climate Change is now being used by authorities from the top down to hide their incompetence and failure to prevent or lessen the effects of naturally occuring events.

  3. Arson is a bit of a red herring. Dry conditions or abundant fuel will allow the fire to spread rapidly regardless of the ignition source. But dry conditions and abundant fuel certainly don’t immediately equate to climate change.

  4. My first college degree was in Park Management in the 80's. We spoke often about forest mismanagement stemming from the introduction of the iconic Smokey the Bear. The native North Americans knew the importance of fire in the health of the environment and apparently engaged in controlled burning at times. Our fire suppression at all costs style of management has created enormous fuel loads paired with desirable geographical locations of housing near the woods. It's a recipe with a predictable outcome.

  5. Personally, I suspect the fire was started accidentally by human activity, likely by live power lines downed by 100 + kmph winds. And multiple, normal conditions that that prevailed to create a very high risk of fire - something publicly and clearly published days in advance of the fire by the weather service.

    Some terms are wrong. “Maui” wasn’t being burned. All the fires combined, while damaging in their locations, constitute a very small percentage of the island. Conditions outside of those areas have been normal. “Drought” is inaccurate. This is their normal “dry” season annually. A normal weather pattern for much of the earth. There hasn’t been any drought. It’s also a season for hot weather and there hasn’t been anything unusual about it.

    P.S. It’s “Smokey Bear”

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