Wildfires in Hawaii seen from the road

Flash Drought, Hurricane Dora, and Foehn Winds Spark Hawaii Wildfires

by Alexander Milla

Once the home of the legendary King Kamehameha, Lahaina, Hawaii–on the island of Maui–now lies smoldering. In the wake of this devastation, millions of onlookers have been left glued to their devices, watching in horror as luscious rainforests and timeless beaches lay littered with ash. 

In the midst of this global spectacle, local officials are reporting that over 1,000 homes have been destroyed, with the rising death toll wavering at ninety-six. Dispiritingly, this total only includes victims discovered outside their residences. That means, considering the scale of damage, we can only wince at the potential true number–hidden under the cinders.

Meanwhile, a troubling truth has begun to emerge: local officials severely underestimated the threat that wildfires posed to Maui. One notable example of this is last year’s “comprehensive emergency management plan,” in which Hawaii officials stated that the threat of wildfires remained negligible.

More specifically, page twelve of the official risk assessment ranked the risk of wildfires to its residents as “low,” while property, environment, and program operations were rated as a “medium” hazard. 

What makes this report so puzzling is Hawaii’s track record of brush fires over the past few years. In 2018, for example, Hurricane Lane fell upon the island, spurring fires and devastation. Then, the following year, brush fires in Maui saw 25,000 acres of land razed and hundreds displaced.

Adding to the destruction have been meteorological factors such as flash droughts and so-called “Foehn winds.” Remarkably, these factors were identified in Hawaii’s 2019 emergency management plan, and even referred to as “a real wake-up call.”

Sadly, however, this "wake-up call" did not lead to meaningful policy changes, leaving Hawaiian first responders to pick up the pieces. Seeing their heroic efforts, one cannot help but remember a quote from the late, great Fred Rogers

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.’ You will always find people who are helping.” 

As such, in Kaanapali, firefighters have been working tirelessly to push back the wildfires four miles north of Lahaina. So far, they have managed to contain the main fire in Lahaina to 85%, with another fire in the east 80% contained. 

Meanwhile, in the central upcountry, crews are still battling a third set of wildfires, currently held at 50%. 

Amid all this calamity, one can’t help but wonder: how does a flash drought drain a tropical island of its humidity? Where does Hurricane Dora factor in? What exactly is a “Foehn wind”?

And–perhaps most importantly–how can you be prepared if you find yourself in dire straits while vacationing (or living) in paradise?

Let’s review.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Hurricane Dora

  • 02

    Maui’s Flash Drought

  • 03

    The Foehn Wind Effect

  • 04

    Bugging Out of Paradise

  • 05

    Your Wildfire Loadout

  • 06

    Final Thoughts

Hurricane Dora

Geostationary map of Hawaiian islands on Aug. 8 at 7 AM.

Geostationary map of Hawaiian islands on Aug. 8 at 7 AM. (Image courtesy of Hawaii Public Radio)

While most Americans don’t associate Hawaii with wildfires, the Aloha State reports that about 0.5% of its land is subjected to fires each year. (For perspective, this is “equal to or greater than the proportion burned of any other U.S. state,” according to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.)

But how is this possible?

Remember that fire requires three things to exist: fuel, oxygen, and heat. This means that, as any good woodsman will tell you, a campfire needs good construction and good ventilation in order to burn. 

Unfortunately, Maui has all of these elements readily available: to wit, good ventilation in the form of a violent storm whipping high velocity wind through its dry grasslands, and Foehn winds forcing that oxygen and heat downwards.

Plus, there is Hurricane Dora (now Typhoon Dora) to consider.

Three weeks ago, on July 21, this hurricane-cum-typhoon–then known as Tropical Storm Dora–was born in the Atlantic Ocean. (Note that the distinguishing factor between tropical storms and hurricanes is sustained wind speed.) Quickly, this storm began to cycle through names as it traversed the Eastern Pacific and sped through the Central Pacific. 

Now, it barrels towards Hawaii in the West Pacific, spurred on by warmer ocean temperatures, which directly contribute to a storm’s strength. 

If you’re wondering how a hurricane came to be a typhoon, there’s good reason for that–as it’s only happened a handful of times

That's because a storm of this magnitude rarely lasts this long and travels this far. As a matter of fact, Dora has become the longest category four hurricane on record in the Pacific ocean. Carrying a potential sustained wind speed of 45 mph, Dora is currently whipping underneath Hawaii and moving further into the Pacific, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. 

Smoke billowing from Hawaiian wildfires

(Image courtesy of CBS 58)

Significantly, Typhoon Dora’s winds are credited for dramatically increasing Maui’s “fuel load.” But what does this mean? 

In a nutshell, when winds begin to pick up, many other objects begin to fall down. And in the case of Lahaina, vegetation and stripped tree canopies have been shifted and rearranged into a perfect package of kindling. That means that as trees and structures succumb to high winds, they start to add to our fire’s construction. 

And when tightly packed and stacked flammable materials fall to the ground, they become ready to accept any and all sources of ignition. 

Because of this, Lahaina tragically lost its beloved 150-year-old banyan tree which once grew near the waterfront: a reminder to the savvy survivalist that fire cares not for sentimental value. It will take anything, it will take everything, and it will return it to us in a pile of ashes.

Maui’s Flash Drought

A bird's eye view of Maui

(Image courtesy of Spectrum News)

So, how exactly did Maui, known for lush vegetation and dewy, humid weather fall victim to a flash drought?

Let’s rewind the clock.

As of May 23, Maui was enjoying a seemingly prosperous season of good weather and rainfall. But by June 13th, over half of Maui was categorized as “abnormally dry”. 

In fact, right before Hurricane Dora began to creep onto the horizon, Maui saw 83% of its land grow abnormally or moderately dry–with certain areas even falling into the “severe drought” range. 

This development is a part of a dramatic downward spiral that is becoming increasingly common in certain regions. 

In 2016, for example, Gatlinburg, Tennessee saw a similar pattern of unexpected dryness. In fact, in this multi-state spanning flash drought, conditions exploded from 30% to 75% land coverage in the span of three months (September to October). 

Note that, unlike a typical drought, a flash drought is caused not only by low precipitation, but also abnormally high temperatures and high winds–two phenomena that have been present in Maui in spades.

Hawaiian beach during mild, sunny weather

A Hawaiian beach during happier times. (Image courtesy of Living in Hawaii)

To be sure, the recent patterns in Hawaii’s weather have been a great departure from its breezy status quo, normally maintained by its trade winds.

These winds, which originate from high pressure systems in the North Pacific, play a significant role in island weather patterns, and are responsible for Hawaii’s cool breezes on warm days.

However, as Hurricane Dora began to approach from the south, the storm began to disrupt Hawaii’s trade winds–spinning them clockwise, and increasing their speed. 

This means that Hawaii’s usually moderate winds were whipped into overdrive, and began to sap moisture from the surrounding islands. Note that high winds have a wicking effect on moisture, much like your clothes set on a line on a fair day. 

Adding to the troubles, too, has been an epidemic of invasive grasses. Bear in mind that, just like the grass on our front lawns, when wind speeds are high, evaporation is increased. Except instead of suffering the embarrassment of an unsightly brown lawn (and a potential visit from your homeowners association), Maui was beset by conditions that rendered over 26% of its land dry straw. 

This flash drought left Lahaina especially vulnerable to the threat of wildfires. Like a trail of gunpowder leading towards a packed barrel, this dry grass was tied tightly to many previously thriving pineapple and sugar cane farms–setting the stage for catastrophe.

The Foehn Wind Effect

Smoke billowing in the background of a Hawaiian beach

(Image courtesy of The Washington Post )

With a set amount of fuel and plentiful oxygen supply, the Hawaii wildfires were set to ignite.

As we have already seen, drought and Hurricane Dora played a massive role in this. There is another important piece of the puzzle, however: the Foehn wind effect. 

So, how exactly does it work?

Facilitated by mountainous regions, cool damp air rises over a peak, forms clouds, and is then dried at the summit. Turbulence over the mountain wicks moisture from the air and plunges it downwards. After that, the opposing slope, clear of overcast conditions, heats the newly dried air. 

This results in dry, warm air–or “Foehn winds”–cascading into the valleys below. And when these Foehn winds interacted with Hawaii’s new energized trade winds, as well as Hurricane Dora to the south, the combined effect quickly brought on perilous conditions in the region. 

Note that at the current moment, there is no definitive ignition source for the fires that has been identified by officials. As such, speculation from media agencies ranges from lightning strikes to downed power lines.

Bugging Out

Traffic jam in Hawaii as people evacuate

(Image courtesy of Getty Images)

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re preparedness-minded. A good survivalist, after all, prepares for the unforeseen. 

But what happens when you decide you’re gonna “let your hair down” and drink a few tall tiki drinks on a beach? We can’t remain eternally vigilant all the time, can we? There has to be a time and place to put up our boots and enjoy the life we work hard to earn, with the ones we hope to protect.

In a perfect world, no vacation would call us to action. We’d stay right in our flip-flops and towels while the kids chased crabs and collected seashells. 

Unfortunately, however, the world ain’t perfect. While we survivalists aren’t normally the type to back down from anything, sometimes the best way to win a fight is to hit an about-face and doubletime it to somewhere else. Except, if we’re in Maui, there’s a fairly significant problem: there’s a whole lot of ocean between you and safety.

Indeed, there’s around 2,000 people facing that very problem right now. And with multiple uncontained wildfires approaching from all sides, there’s two options: shelter-in-place or get out of dodge

For those who’d choose the latter, there’s a few things to know. Currently, airports on the island of Maui are overwhelmed by the sheer number of vacationers who are hurriedly trying to evacuate. 

Plus, you’ve gotta get to the airport first. And that might prove difficult, seeing as tourists are encountering traffic jams ranging from three to five hours in order to leave the immediately affected area.

Smoke billows from the slope of Haleakala volcano as citizens evacuate by car.

Smoke billows from the slope of Haleakala volcano as citizens evacuate by car.  (Image courtesy of Spectrum News)

Note that the Honoapi’ilani highway, one of the main arteries of travel for the island, was initially seen as a crucial evacuation path. As of Saturday morning, however,  this route has been blocked off by officials for residents, while tourists are being loaded into supply vehicles and buses. 

If that sounds like a dystopian abuse of governmental control, you’re not the only one who’s thinking it. It’s a pretty scary thought, after all–being told to go take the long way around, because the tourists have to leave. As such, your best bet is to stay ready and make sure your safety stays in your hands.

And along the way, consider these quick tips

At the first sign of danger, make sure you know where your evacuation routes are. Ensure your vehicle is filled with fuel, and do a quick preliminary check of your tires and fluids. Remember that your vehicle may be your lifeline, and getting an early start may be your best bet.

If you are staying at a resort, remain in constant contact with your resort staff. Remember: one of the first bits of infrastructure to go during extreme weather events is communications. That means cell service will likely be interrupted, and Internet will follow shortly. As such, be aware of any and all instructions from staff, as they may advise you about flight information, available public or shuttle transportation, and/or the current status and position of the wildfires.

Make sure, too, that you have a portable radio tuned into the emergency broadcast. Alongside this, write down any phone numbers or travel information you may need, as electrical services may go down, leaving you without your essential devices.

With all of that out of the way, we’re ready to head to the airport. Plan A is a go, and you can breathe a sigh of relief. Then, you hear a few words you didn’t even know you weren’t ready to hear: "The airport is closed."

Burnt cars in Hawaii

Destroyed homes and cars in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Image courtesy of Spectrum News)

Your Wildfire Loadout

If this ever becomes your reality, be ready with your meticulously prepared wildfire go-bag. Here at MIRA Safety, we know you’ve got the skills, the willingness, and the know-how to get through this. All you need is the right equipment.

So let’s get into it.

The MIRA Safety VK-530 Smoke/Carbon monoxide Filter Cartridge is the very first thing you’ll want to reach for as that dry grassy smoke encroaches. Wherever you are, this cartridge turns any compatible mask into a smoke hood. That means that whether you’re bugging out in the open, or making your way through a fully involved structure, the VK-530 is ready to accommodate–fitting right onto the gas mask you’ve lovingly packed right underneath your "aloha" shirt.

The MIRA Safety VK-530 filter

The MIRA Safety VK-530 filter

Remember, too, that toxic industrial compounds—including arsenic, lead, and cadmium—are often released during wildfires. Because these heavy metals irritate airways and damage lungs, exposure to them increases the likelihood of dangerous health conditions like asthma, lung disease, and heart disease.

This is what makes VK-530 so valuable: it is rated for organic and inorganic gasses and vapors, acid gasses and vapors, ammonia, amines, and nitrogen oxide. Plus, the filter is a carbon monoxide converter with up to fifteen minutes of protection from smoke and inhaled carbon monoxide—making it indispensable during a wildfire.

Of course, a great filter means you’ll need an exceptional mask to install it into. And the MIRA CM-I01 Full-Face Respirator is that mask. With a certified class three rating, you’ll be protected from mechanical, heat, and flame hazards.

The MIRA Safety I01 in action

The MIRA Safety I01 in action.

Thanks to its specially tailored design, the CM-I01 is compatible with a range of face shapes, sizes, and variable fitting requirements. And at a light 571 grams, your spouse will hardly notice it as you swap it with their seventh pair of tennis shoes in your luggage.

So you’ve got, what? A carry-on left? Perfect. Fill that last bit of space with the MIRA Safety CBRN Butyl Gloves to complete your wildfire/CBRN vacation kit. Available in three sizes with the flexibility to accommodate varying hand proportions, these gloves are made with mobility in mind.

Remember, after all: your dexterity is paramount when your heart is racing and time is of the essence. As such, these gloves come standard with a cotton liner to guarantee enhanced dexterity in times of duress. This keeps you  protected from toxic industrial chemicals and unexpected threats when hunkering down or bugging out.

Man wearing MIRA Safety’s CBRN butyl gloves

MIRA Safety’s CBRN butyl gloves complete your CBRN protective gear.

Final Thoughts

A bird's eye view of Maui

(Image courtesy of Reuters)

In the wake of this catastrophic event, one truth becomes undeniable: nature's unpredictability can disrupt even the most idyllic settings. As the people of Maui reckon with the devastation before them, it's clear that preparedness and awareness are imperative.

In this way, the Hawaiian wildfires have unveiled a sobering reality, exposing vulnerabilities that demand our attention. Sparked by a blend of compounding weather conditions, this disaster highlights the need for comprehensive emergency strategies that account for the full spectrum of potential threats–especially when there has been ample warning for them.

But though the government of Hawaii fell short in its preparedness, the people of Hawaii–most notably their first responders–have shown great courage in the face of crisis.

From this perspective, Maui's story becomes one of resilience, adaptation, and community strength. And though the path to recovery is long, the flames have ignited a determination to ensure that paradise endures–safeguarded against the myriad forces that threaten it.