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The role climate change has played in Hawaii's devastating wildfires

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Much of Lahaina, on the island of Maui, is in ruins.

COLE MILLINGTON: My business, my home, my inventory - everything I own is gone. I'm lucky enough that my dog is alive. I'm alive. I have a vehicle. And I have a lot of friends accounted for with me, but I have a lot of friends who aren't accounted for.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: That's Cole Millington. He owns Honolua Hot Sauce Co., which is based in Lahaina. He says everything happened so fast for him.

MILLINGTON: I just looked out my window, and I saw a huge black plume of smoke pretty close to our house. And within 15 minutes, we were sprinting into our cars, peeling out of the driveway and the road was on fire.

KELLY: At least three dozen people have died. Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed. Many are still having trouble reaching their loved ones.

REZA DANESH: It's very obviously traumatic to see such a historic town - just to see it scorched and gray and still burning and the smoke. And it was very apocalyptic.

SUMMERS: That's Dr. Reza Danesh. He's been driving around in a medical van, treating people who are still in Lahaina. And while he's been treating them, they have been sharing stories of survival.

DANESH: One guy that rescued himself said he felt the walls being hot, and then he knew not to open his front door. So he rappelled down three stories with a rope he had and just started running to the ocean.

KELLY: Dr. Danesh says that patient is not the only one who sought refuge in the ocean.

DANESH: This other lady - we were treating all her cuts and all her injuries - told me she spent eight hours in the water. She just ran to the ocean. And she had to, like, hold onto a pillar. And she was telling me how her friend had smoke inhalation and was having a hard time, and her friend couldn't survive. And just to hear that story, to kind of like - it's kind of some kind of, like, Titanic-like story to just watch someone in the water - and it's your friend - die. Her pets died, and she had nothing. And we were treating her, and she was keeping her spirits up. But to just realize that happened right here, a few miles from where we live, it just seems unfair.

SUMMERS: The devastation from the fires has been swift and vast. Satellite images of Lahaina taken yesterday show large swaths of Maui that have been completely leveled.

KELLY: These wildfires are already raising questions about what role climate change may be playing - questions we're going to put now to Giuseppe Torri. He's a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Hawaii. We have reached him in Honolulu. Professor, welcome.

GIUSEPPE TORRI: Well, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: So just yesterday I was interviewing someone live from Hawaii on this program, and six people were confirmed dead. Overnight, that number jumped. The death toll is now in the dozens. There's also devastation that is looking much worse than it was just 24 hours ago. So start there - how did this fire get so big, so deadly, so fast?

TORRI: There are two components to this. The first one is that we are in a dry season in Hawaii. It hasn't rained a lot. Summers are typically dry. And we are in a period of El Nino, meaning that the Pacific Ocean is warmer. And warmer waters in the Pacific Ocean typically bring drier conditions in Hawaii. And so these two things summed together caused fairly dry conditions on the islands for the past few weeks. On top of this, we had - to the north of the island, there was a pretty strong high-pressure system. And to the south of the island, we had a tropical cyclone. Tropical cyclones have low pressures. And so high pressure to the north, low pressure to the south caused great acceleration in the winds.

KELLY: OK. So you're talking about winds. You're talking about dry conditions. I mean, I will note it's not just dry this summer. It's been dry for years. Hawaii has been experiencing drought for more than a decade. Was this a case where you had existing conditions in place and then weather patterns that combined in just the wrong way for a fire like this to be possible?

TORRI: That is correct. Yes. Conditions were there, and the wind was sort of the trigger.

KELLY: Is this just Maui, or are other parts of Hawaii vulnerable in the same way?

TORRI: I would say all of the Hawaiian islands are equally vulnerable. Wildfires in general are - they're not so rare in Hawaii. And so there have been occasions in Maui and Hawaii Island in the past, but these tend to be pretty limited in spatial extent and certainly not with the same amount of damages that we've seen.

KELLY: Ah. I mean, the images coming out of Hawaii are shocking. Are they surprising, knowing everything we know about the environmental conditions you're describing and the atmospheric conditions?

TORRI: No, I don't think they're surprising at all. And, in fact, this was a topic of conversation with friends in the past few days 'cause, you know, we were just saying, well, El Nino, dry conditions - you know, we were expecting tropical cyclones, hurricanes during the season, and we were just talking about the possibility of there being wildfires. Certainly, we didn't expect the impact that they had on Lahaina.

KELLY: This is the town that's basically burnt to the ground, or at least it appears to be from images. Go on.

TORRI: Yeah. This beautiful, historic town completely burned. We didn't expect that, that's for sure. But it wasn't too surprising that there would be wildfires.

KELLY: Yeah. Is this climate change? To what extent is that factoring in here?

TORRI: So I would say there are different components to this. To some degree, this is part of the natural variability of the climate. We do, however, observe there had been considerable drying over the Hawaiian Islands, particularly on the leeward side. And this is consistent with what some of the models project for future climates.

And I would also add a third component, which is that climate change doesn't only mean the change due to greenhouse gas concentrations having increased over the past 150 years. Climate change is also due to how we change the environment in which we live. And Hawaii has certainly experienced dramatic changes over the last, I would say, 50 to a hundred years in terms of urbanization, in terms of land use and land cover change. A lot of the land is being converted from, you know, just wild land - being converted to agricultural land, to various crops. The way we use the natural resources can have an impact, perhaps not on a global scale, but maybe on a regional enough scale to become important for these changes to occur.

KELLY: So what's the No. 1 question on your mind - top thing you're watching for in the coming days?

TORRI: Well, first of all, what is the Pacific Ocean going to do over the next few months? What is it going to do next year? Are we still going to be in an El Nino year, I guess? And the Pacific Ocean is a giant heart for the - planet Earth. And what the Pacific Ocean is doing has effects pretty much everywhere. And it's particularly true in Hawaii, which is at the center of this beautiful ocean. And so the No. 1 question is, how can we better predict the behavior of this part of the globe, which is not as inhabited as other continental areas, but which, from the climate point of view, is extraordinarily important? And the second question, which is not necessarily my field, is how can we be better prepared in the future? - because if this keeps happening and these events keep happening, how can we be better prepared moving forward?

KELLY: That is Giuseppe Torri, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Hawaii. Professor Torri, thank you.

TORRI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
Tinbete Ermyas
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.