Maui, Hawaii, Death Toll Hits 93, Deadliest American Wildfire In Over 100 Years
The grim numbers just keep getting grimmer. The death toll from the wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, has now reached 93, according to an August 12 update from the County of Maui. That makes these Maui wildfires the deadliest in modern American history. Yes, that’s right, the deadliest, topping the 85 lives that the ironically-named Camp Fire in California claimed in 2018. And unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that this 93 number won’t keep rising over the next few days and weeks.
You’d have to go back to the 1918 Cloquet fire in northern Minnesota that killed 453 people to find a wildfire that’s been deadlier. If you are wondering why the year 1918 sounds familiar, that was also the year when a big influenza pandemic occurred as well.
The wildfires have also already damaged or in many cases completely taken out over 2,200 different structures. With close to $6 billion in estimated damages, Hawaii Governor Josh Green called this likely the largest natural disaster that Hawaii has ever experienced since it became a state in 1959.
Then there’s the plant life and other wild life. It’s difficult to estimate the full impact that these wildfires will have on the ecosystem in Maui. And even if you hate other animals and plants, such changes will eventually come around to negatively impact humans and the oh-so-precious economy that so many people worry about.
You may have heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. But when you see the devastation from the following ABC News drone footage, there are no words:
The bleak, gray landscape in this drone footage is not exactly the images that you typically see in Hawaii travel brochures. Again, this is Hawaii, which in theory should appear sun-drenched and not New Asgard in Norway after Thanos snapped out half of humanity in the movie Avengers: End Game. The remaining burnt out palm trees look exhausted from fending off the blaze. And you can still see smoke rising in many places signifying the potential presence of smoldering fires.
Such widespread devastation has left Maui in critical condition. Wildfires can kill you in many different ways. One is by engulfing you in flames and burning your skin and everything around and under it. Even if you initially survive such burns, the loss of the natural protection that your skin typically offers can leave you highly susceptible to a dangerous amount of fluid loss and life-threatening infections.
Another way wildfires can kill you is via smoke inhalation. The smoke and fumes generated by wildfires aren’t what you might see when you sit around a campfire, burn incense or make crème brulée. Instead, wildfire smoke is intensely hot, and since they result from the burning of all kinds of materials on the ground ranging from underbrush to rotting organic material to plastic to fuel, the smoke can be filled with particulate matter and toxic materials. Inhaling such hot smoke can do major damage to your lungs—you know the things that you use to breathe, exchange oxygen and stay alive each and every day. Damage to your lungs can not only make it more difficult to breath, it can also trigger a cascade of inflammation and chemical release in your body that can send many of your different organ systems spiraling downwards.
A third way is by all sorts of secondary injuries resulting from the destruction caused by the wildfires. Burning and melting structures can collapse and fall on you. There can also be explosions, especially when fires reach the one thing that gets them even hotter: namely fuel such as gasoline tanks. These explosions can cause you direct injury and lead to flying shrapnel, two words that you never want to see together.
So the death toll only captures a fraction of the human suffering from wildfires. For every person killed by a wildfire, many others have been injured, in many cases very badly.
Then there’s the damage to the infrastructure, which can lead to even more health problems. For example, lots of residents have been without power. An unsafe water advisory remains in effect for areas affected by the wildfires such as in Upper Kula and Lahaina. And who knows how many people will be affected by lack of standard supplies such as food, water, and hygiene products.
On the positive said, the County of Maui did report on Saturday that firefighters have been able to extinguish more flare-ups in the Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires and fully contain the Pulehu/Kīhei fire. The American Red Cross has set up an emergency evacuation shelter. Lahaina Gateway Center and Napili Plaza have been serving as distribution center for food, water and other supplies. Kaiser Permanente outpatient health and medical clinics have been operating through extended hours. In addition to food, bottled water, and hygeine products, Maui residents have been requesting coolers, slippers, underwear, flashlights and generators. Donated Wi-Fi trucks have been providing Wi-Fi service and helping people charge cellphones.
While these relief efforts are certainly helping, one has to wonder what will happen when news of this Maui disaster fade and people start turning their attention to other things like what celebrity is wearing what. The impact of a wildfire isn’t like a TikTok short or even like a Hollywood movie. There likely will be numerous longer-term effects on people’s mental, physical, social, and financial health. How many more asthma attacks, cardiovascular problems, strokes, and cancers will there be in the coming years? How will Maui residents cope with the devastation? What will be the impact on the infrastructure and economy there? Who will be there to pick up the pieces once the attentions of political and business leaders shift to something else?
Add the Maui wildfires to the growing list of devastating wildfires that have happened in recent years. Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that the “extent of area burned by wildfires each year appears to have increased since the 1980s” and “The peak of the U.S. wildfire season is occurring earlier.” Those are not good trends. And you can’t blame freaking space lasers for that. Climate change has manifested in warmer temperatures and drier conditions that, in turn, can be making vegetation more likely to catch fire. All of this suggests that over time the impact of wildfires may spread like, well, wildfire.