HomeTop StoriesFast-moving Hawaii fires will take a heavy toll on the state's environment

Fast-moving Hawaii fires will take a heavy toll on the state’s environment

The raging wildfires that ravaged Maui this week took a heavy toll on people and property, killing at least 53 people and destroying the historic town of Lahaina. But their effects on Hawaii’s landscape and environment are also expected to be significant.

Experts say the fires are likely to change the landscape in undesirable ways, including accelerating erosion, sending sediment into waterways and affecting coral critical to the islands, marine life and people who live nearby .

A look at some of those potential effects:


The wildfires hit Hawaii just as Jamison Gove, a Honolulu-based oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published research in Nature on the recovery period of Hawaii’s coral reefs after a 2015 marine heat wave. That work highlighted the threat to coral from land-based contaminants flowing into the ocean.

Gove said on Thursday that burning homes, commercial structures and cars and trucks would make any runoff worse by concentrating synthetic materials in the stream.

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“It’s not a big leap to suggest that when all that material is even more concentrated in a small area, the consequences would undoubtedly be more serious if and when it’s in the ocean,” Gove said. He noted that Lahaina’s coastal location meant “a minimum distance” for the materials to reach the ocean.

“Coral reefs provide coastal protection, they provide fisheries, they support cultural practices in Hawaii,” Gove said. “And the loss of reefs just has such detrimental effects on the ecosystem.”


A victim of the fire could be clean drinking water.

Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, said the wildfires could contaminate private wells and water systems and even municipal water systems.

The private wells, which can be shallow and sometimes provide little more protection than a board or well house, can be easily overcome and contaminated by fire, Whelton said.

Municipal systems can also be affected when distribution systems are damaged by fire. Whelton described a scenario where pressure drops could cause contaminated water to build up and suck up smoke, soot, ash and fumes that penetrate plastics, gaskets and other materials to create a future problem.

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“They slowly leach into the clean water you just brought in, making that clean water unsafe,” Whelton said.


Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, a nonprofit that works with communities to prevent and reduce fires, lamented the changes brought about by fire.

Invasive and fire-prone grasses have invaded over time, and during a fire, they can burn in native forests, meaning the forests are replaced by more grass, Pickett said. The soil burns and molts, leading to massive post-fire erosion that chokes coral, affects fisheries and reduces ocean water quality, she said.

The state is windy and the dust blows for years, harming human health, she added.

“If you lose your soil, it is very difficult to recover and replant. And the only thing life there can really handle in many cases is more of those invasive species,” Pickett said. “It’s systemic. Air, land and water are all affected.”

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Paul Steblein, the wildfire science coordinator for the US Geological Survey, said there are a number of fire-adapted invasive species. If that’s what grows back after a wildfire, fires could become more common.

Those invasive grasses also grow faster during the wetter periods due to climate change and become easy to burn when it dries out, Steblein said.


The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. Read more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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