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The Maui Wildfire: Analyzing the Power-Grid Catch-22
Maui County, no stranger to hurricane-driven wildfires, sits in a relatively dry area covered by a rain shadow. Making this equation worse, non-native and wildfire-prone plants introduced to the region near the turn of the 19th century easily create spot fires that rapidly and effortlessly spread (Trauernicht et al., 2015). Hawaii, after all, is a chain of islands far away from the mainland United States – or any major country for that matter – severely limiting mutual aid capabilities. According to the 2020 Hazard Mitigation Plan (which is a great read by the way) between 2015 and 2019 Maui County experienced over 40 fires that collectively burned in excess of 36,000 acres (County of Maui, Hawai’i, 2020), and destroyed entire towns.
Yet despite this, it is evident that first responders remained underequipped to fight the growing hazards. With only a single fire station near Lahaina, housing 3 apparatuses (5280Fire, n.d.), it seems response crews were easily overrun once the blaze gained a foothold. Additionally, the operation may have suffered from lack of leadership and direction as both the Emergency Management Director (of the 9-person staff) (Maui County, 2022) and Maui County Fire Chief were out of town (Honore & Heaton, 2023) when the blaze began.
The following Reddit thread is perhaps the most comprehensive timeline of early events (with fire progression pictures and video) currently available online. It is absolutely incredible and a MUST READ: https://www.reddit.com/r/Hawaii/comments/15ok86f/lahaina_fire_and_evacuation_timeline/
Despite being nearly a decade old, this map, which illustrates the locations of wildfire calls between 2013 and 2015 (Maui Fire Department, 2016) also showcases the only main road along the Lahaina coast called the Honoapi'ilani Highway. When wildfires or other hazards occur along this route, emergency response and evacuation become a serious and consistent problem. Had this highway (which makes Lahaina accessible to the airport and fire station) been destroyed, there is no telling how much worse it could have been.
As firefighters battled other blazes in the area on August 8, the Lahaina Fire, which was first spotted early morning, started out like any other and covered a mere 3 acres near Lahainaluna Road (Alfonseca, 2023). Although the ignition source has yet to be revealed, strong winds spurred on by Hurricane Dora felled numerous telephone poles. Although it has not been officially verified, this video supposedly recorded the day of ignition, if accurate, clearly shows the threat.
Whether or not powerlines are to blame for ignition is currently unknown. That being said however, preliminary research and analysis indicates that powerlines and the electric grid played a large role in the crisis. Four words echo this realization: Single Point of Failure.
The media has been very vocal about the decision to not shut off the power grid (to prevent fire spread). Some even claim that this tactic never existed in the utility company’s playbook (Sacks, 2023; Honore & Hill, 2023). Whether true or false, many of these arguments seem to be missing a crucial component – the “Why?”
Perhaps the nature of the electric grid can provide insight. You see, Maui greatly relies upon booster pump stations and other electrically-run water infrastructure to charge fire hydrants and water mains, essential services that support firefighter operations. So far, it appears that this critical infrastructure is attached to the same electric grid as the surrounding communities. Thereby potentially creating a horrible Catch-22.
Shut it off and leave responders flatfooted or keep it on and risk potentially starting and spreading fire.
In fact, water services and infrastructure in Maui County specifically – at least according to a 2015 study – account for 32 % of the island’s general energy consumption and nearly 20% of its on-island primary energy (Grubert & Webber, 2015). Some of this infrastructure likely to be heavily damaged or destroyed (according to ArcGIS data as of Aug 14th) include dozens of wells and water tanks, as well as the following facilities: Lahaina #4, Lahaina #5, Lahaina #6, Villas at Kahoma Stream, McFarland Residence, and Moalii Projects 1 & 2.
This ESRI map shows the locations of pumping facilities (colored boxes) in relation to the areas of total loss (as indicated by red).
Other Recommended Reading:
County of Maui Department of Fire & Public Safety: Standards of Cover (2016) http://mauicounty.us/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/MAUI-SOC-4-6-17.pdf
County of Maui Department of Fire & Public Safety: Strategic Plan 2021-2025 https://www.mauicounty.gov/DocumentCenter/View/101890/MFD-Master-Strategic-Plan-2021---2025?bidId=
Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization: Western Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5254fbe2e4b04bbc53b57821/t/54ff533ee4b0d8debf83ed8d/1426019167515/Western+Maui+CWPP+Final+with+Appendices.pdf
County of Maui Department of Water Supply: Annual Report FY 2022 https://www.mauicounty.gov/DocumentCenter/View/139031/FY22-DWS-Annual-Report?bidId=
West Maui Wastewater Infrastructure [Slideshow] (2019) https://www.mauicounty.gov/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/26369
5280Fire. (n.d.). Maui Station 3. 5280Fire. https://5280fire.com/home/other-states-fire-apparatus-stations/hawaii/maui-fire-department/maui-station-3/
Alfonseca, K. (2023, August 14). Timeline: How the deadly wildfires took over Maui day by day. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/US/timeline-deadly-wildfires-maui-day-day/story?id=102253075
County of Maui, Hawai’i. (2020). Hazard Mitigation Plan Update. Maui Emergency Management Agency. https://www.mauicounty.gov/DocumentCenter/View/125977/2020-Maui-County-Hazard-Mitigation-Plan-Final
Grubert, E. A., & Webber, M. E. (2015). Energy for water and water for energy on Maui Island, Hawaii. Environmental Research Letters, 10(6), 064009. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/10/6/064009
Honore, M., & Heaton, T. (2023, August 11). Maui’s top emergency officials were off island as wildfires hit lahaina. Honolulu Civil Beat. https://www.civilbeat.org/2023/08/mauis-top-emergency-officials-were-off-island-as-wildfires-hit-lahaina/
Honore, M., & Hill, J. (2023, August 13). Heco kept the power flowing in lahaina even as poles toppled. Honolulu Civil Beat. https://www.civilbeat.org/2023/08/hecos-fire-response-plan-lacked-a-critical-step-shutting-down-power/
Maui County. (2022). FY 2023 Council Adopted Budget. Mayor’s Budget Office of Maui County. https://www.mauicounty.gov/DocumentCenter/View/137128/000-FY-2023-Council-Adopted-Combined
Maui Fire Department. (2016). County of Maui Department of Fire & Public Safety: Standards of Cover. Maui Fire Department .
Livingearthsystems. (n.d.). Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/Cvy-8F-uDVh/
Sacks, B. (2023, August 14). Hawaii utility faces scrutiny for not cutting power to reduce fire risks. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/08/12/maui-fire-electric-utility/
Trauernicht, C., Pickett, E., Giardina, C. P., Litton, C. M., Cordell, S., & Beavers, A. (2015). The Contemporary Scale and Context of Wildfire in Hawai‘i. Pacific Science, 69(4), 427–444. https://doi.org/doi:10.2984/69.4.1