By The Herald Editorial Board
Even more than a week after a wildfire raced through the historic Maui, Hawaii, town of Lahaina, forcing some to flee into the ocean to escape flames, the extent of the tragedy still isn’t fully accounted for. As of Friday, the death toll had reached 111, with the search for victims completed in less than half of the disaster zone and its 2,200 homes and structures; some fear the number of deaths could rise significantly in coming days.
The loss in lives has already surpassed the 85 who died in the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., and is the worst loss of life since some 1,000 people died in wildfires in Minnesota in 1918, according to the National Weather Service.
The direct cause of the fire remains under investigation, but early reports have focused on high winds bringing down powerlines that sparked a brush fire in Lahaina’s east neighborhoods. A combination of conditions and circumstances appear to have turned a brushfire — that authorities initially considered contained hours after it started — into an inferno that swept through the town in hours, cutting power, silencing cellphone communications and trapping motorists in traffic jams in a race to flee the fire.
A combination of conditions and circumstances appear to have conspired in the deadly blaze: strong mountain winds topping 80 miles an hour from a hurricane hundreds of miles away; a long-running drought and low humidity that sapped moisture from vegetation, including fields of tall-growing nonnative and invasive grasses; and reports of electrical lines unable to withstand the winds and a decision to keep the lines electrified in those winds.
That conspiracy of conditions ought to be on the minds of residents of Western Washington, even as temperatures ease from their highs in the 80s and 90s earlier this week. The threat of wildfires in Western Washington is still high. A red-flag warning remains for nearly all of the western slopes of the Cascade Range in Washington and in central Okanogan County.
Among active wildfires, the largest, the Sourdough Fire in Whatcom County’s North Cascades forests has consumed nearly 3,000 acres; and two more fires, Dome Peak and Airplane Lake, are burning along or near Snohomish County’s border with Chelan County, according to the state Department of Natural Resources’ online wildfire dashboard. As of Thursday, the Dome Peak fire had grown to 770 acres and the Airplane Lake fire was at 400 acres.
To date this year, some 1,295 wildfires have been reported in the state, burning more than 110,000 acres. On state Department of Natural Resources-managed lands 49 human-caused fires were reported through Aug. 1, nearly double the 27 reported during the same time frame last year, the Washington State Standard reported Wednesday.
A wet early spring that encouraged the growth of underbrush, a drier than normal May that has dried that vegetation and the return of the El Niño weather pattern’s expected warmer temperatures have created a combustible mix in Western Washington.
And, as last summer’s Bolt Creek Fire in Snohomish County’s eastern communities demonstrated — with evacuations and the closure of U.S. 2 — Western Washington is no longer immune from the threat of large wildfires.
Recent research is challenging an earlier assumption that the increasing exposure to wildfires was resulting from housing encroaching closer to areas with forests, shrublands and grasslands. Instead, writes Mojtaba Sadegh, an associate professor at Boise State University, in a recent article for The Conversation, the wildfires are occurring nearer to long-existing communities.
Homeowners who live in forested and wildlands areas have long been advised to take steps to protect their homes from wildfire, reducing the opportunity for fire to spread to homes and other structures. A preparedness program, dubbed Firewise, suggests practices that those in the state’s more established communities on both sides of the state should now consider.
Sadegh, in his Conversation article, says communities will need to adapt to the increased risk of wildfire, by developing community-level wildfire response plans, limiting the human-caused sources of fires and strengthening zoning and building codes to prevent the worst damage from fires.
In recent years, the state has increased funding and emphasis on preparing and fighting wildfires and bolstering forest health and resilience, such as increased efforts to reduce understory growth, thin diseased and dead trees and use controlled burns to reduce fuels for potential wildfires.
Individuals have responsibilities, too.
Firewise, managed by the state DNR, advises clearing brush around structures to create a defensible space; planting fire-resistant plants, staying alert for and respecting burn bans; taking care with backyard debris burning; and being ready to evacuate if orders are issued.
The precautions don’t end away from home, particular for those in forestlands
While no specific cause was named, the Bolt Creek Fire was considered human-caused. A repeat this summer is in no one’s interest.
When out in the woods, follow rules and common sense on campfires, where they are allowed. The U.S. Forest Service announced a total ban on campfires for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest but is allowing gas or propane camp stoves and burners. Likewise, Mount Rainier National Park has banned all fires in firepits and camp grills until further notice.
Those in the outdoors also should reduce the chance for a random spark to start a blaze by checking vehicles for dragging chains and other parts that can cause sparks and light fires along roadsides. And avoid parking on dry grass or brush that can be ignited by hot exhaust pipes. Spark arresters should be used on all gasoline-powered equipment in wildland areas.
As always, Smokey Bear and his “only you” reminder offer more tips at SmokeyBear.com.
As communities in Maui and Lahaina mourn their losses and begin a long process of recovery and rebuilding, two actions are owed to those residents and should be considered:
The first is to assist in their recovery as we can with financial donations. Charity Navigator, a nonprofit that reviews and rates nonprofit charities — largely based on the percentage of donations that go directly to a cause — offers a list of reliable charities working to provide aid after the fires, at CharityNavigator.org.
The second is not to ignore the warnings and lessons from Lahaina’s immense loss.