According to a hazard mitigation plan prepared for Maui County in 2020, West Maui, where Lahaina is located, has the highest annual probability for wildfires compared to all other communities in the county. The plan listed West Maui as having a “highly likely” probability, with over a 90 percent chance of wildfires occurring each year on average. This rating is significantly higher than the “likely” ratings received by half a dozen other Maui communities, which range from 10 percent to 90 percent. Conversely, the island of Lanai in Maui County received the lowest assessment with a “possible” probability of 1 percent to 10 percent.
Although the plan, prepared by Jamie Caplan Consulting, did not specifically explain the elevated risk in West Maui, it did provide some broader reasons for the probability of future wildfires in the county. These reasons have proven to be somewhat prophetic given the current situation on the island; the document stated that dry, windy conditions combined with an accumulation of vegetative fuel can create conditions conducive to the rapid spread of fires. Additionally, the report highlighted that wildfires may become more frequent as drought conditions intensify due to climate change.
The report revealed that between 1999 and 2019, a total of 80 wildfires directly affected the county, averaging about four fires each year. The largest fire mentioned in the report occurred in Kaunakakai in 2009, scorching over 8,358 acres on the island of Molokai. The document noted that most of the county is heavily vegetated, and areas with steep slopes, particularly leeward slopes that lack moisture from trade winds, are particularly vulnerable to wildfires.
The report also highlighted the vulnerability of West Maui’s demographic to the impacts of wildfires. It stated that West Maui has the highest rate of non-English speakers in the county, accounting for nearly 6 percent of the population. This language barrier may limit the ability of the population to receive, understand, and respond promptly during hazardous events. Additionally, West Maui had the county’s second-highest rate of households without a vehicle, approximately 7 percent, and the highest density of multiunit housing in the county, nearly 40 percent.
The report identified 50 strategies for the county to mitigate the impact of natural hazards. One of the strategies suggested the establishment of an alternative route to and from West Maui for use during disasters. These recommendations aim to reduce the vulnerability of West Maui and other communities in Maui County to wildfires and other natural hazards.