Hawaii reportedly downplayed threat of wildfires for years prior to Maui blaze

The charred remains of Lahaina, Hawaii, after a wildfire.
(Image credit: Paula Ramon / AFP via Getty Images)

Hawaiian officials reportedly downplayed the threat of wildfires for years prior to the deadly blaze on the island of Maui last week, as records show a history of underfunding and lack of planning that may have contributed to the devastation.

Investigations from CNN and The Wall Street Journal found that Hawaii had dismissed wildfires as an event that could cause widespread damage to the state. A 2022 report from the State of Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HIEMA) ranked tsunamis and hurricanes as the two likeliest occurrences to present a risk to Hawaiians. Out of 10 types of natural disasters, wildfires were the lowest threat on the list, with the report simply stating that the risk from wildfires to humans was "low."

Just 18 months after that report was published, a devastating wildfire struck Maui, leaving the coastal town of Lahaina in ruins and destroying more than 2,200 buildings, officials said in a press release. At least 93 people have died, and officials expect that number to keep rising as rescue workers make their way through the rubble. The wildfire was "likely the largest natural disaster in Hawaii state history," Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) tweeted.

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Beyond the 2022 report, other records show that the state was likely not prepared for a mass-casualty wildfire. A 2021 report from Maui County — where Lahaina was located — claimed that firefighting measures were "inadequate" despite an increase in wildfires seen that year. The report also said the local fire department had "nothing about what can and should be done to prevent fires" in their plans. It was concluded that there needed to be an increase in "firefighting cost overruns, response problems, and...budgetary pressures for additional fire prevention," but this didn't occur.

Hawaii Rep. Jill Tokuda (D) told "CNN This Morning" that the state had "underestimated the lethality" of wildfires.

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Justin Klawans

Justin Klawans is a staff writer at The Week. Based in Chicago, he was previously a breaking news reporter for Newsweek, writing breaking news and features for verticals including politics, U.S. and global affairs, business, crime, sports, and more. His reporting has been cited on many online platforms, in addition to CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

He is also passionate about entertainment and sports news, and has covered film, television, and casting news as a freelancer for outlets like Collider and United Press International, as well as Chicago sports news for Fansided.