More than three weeks since wildfires devastated Lahaina, in western Maui, the death toll has reached 115, with many still missing. The fire is already the fifth-deadliest in U.S. history and the worst in more than a century. It also is bound to be repeated, unless public officials at all levels investigate the policy failures that contributed to the tragedy and take steps to prevent them from happening again.
Though much remains to be learned, a few facts seem clear. The disaster was far from unexpected: Parts of Hawaii have become highly vulnerable to wildfires, due to decades of below-average rainfall and the spread of flammable, non-native grasses on former plantation lands. A 2020 report found the western areas of Maui had a 90% probability of seeing at least one wildfire annually, the highest rate on the island; Lahaina itself had a higher wildfire risk than all but 8% of communities in the U.S.
Despite such warnings, public officials appear to have devoted insufficient attention to risk-reduction measures, such as clearing overgrowth and conducting controlled burns. Maui’s local government has sued Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., the state utility, for failing to harden dilapidated power lines that might have ignited the fires; the utility has denied responsibility, saying it cut power to the area six hours before the most destructive blaze broke out. What’s indisputable is that once the crisis started, Maui’s emergency-management system failed catastrophically. Warning sirens failed to go off and the city’s water supply ran out, leaving homeowners and firefighters powerless to contain the blaze. Residents attempting to flee Lahaina were trapped for hours in traffic jams due to downed power lines and road closures. Survivors say they’ve received little official guidance on where to find housing or how to apply for government relief.
A calamity of this scale demands a national reckoning — not just to hold officials accountable for their mistakes, but also to apply Maui’s lessons to other communities facing similar risks. By that standard, Washington’s response has been inadequate. President Joe Biden’s administration has mobilized more than 1,000 federal personnel to assist in relief efforts and announced $95 million to upgrade Hawaii’s electrical grid, but has deferred to state-level officials to carry out investigations into how the disaster was handled. That’s provided an opening for House Republicans, who’ve announced plans to “examine” the federal government’s response.
What’s needed instead is a thorough, bipartisan examination of the factors that led up to the disaster, whether deaths could have been prevented and how to reduce the damage from such events in the future. Among other things, investigators should provide recommendations on how vulnerable communities can adapt to and improve their defenses against the growing threat of wildfires. A credible probe would highlight not only how climate change may be worsening natural disasters, but also the need to make adequate investments in resilience to limit the loss of life when disasters inevitably strike.