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Wildfire in Maui: What Can We Learn?

Pavin Browne
August 29, 2023

The timeless beauty of Hawaii and the communities dotting its pristine sandy shores have become emblematic of escape - a place seemingly free from troubles and worries. We dream about getting away, flying off to island time where nothing matters except the sea breeze and the cold drink in our hand.

The recent fires on Maui have brutally disrupted this fantasy.

Lessons can and must be learned from this broken idealism. In a time of profound crises and pain, how can the events of August 2023 teach us to better protect our communities from future calamity?

What happened?

Lahaina, a historic seaside town nestled on Maui's western coast, has long been celebrated for its cultural heritage and stunning ocean views. Once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom and whaling center, the town offered a unique glimpse into Hawaii's past through its preserved architecture.

On August 8, 2023, brush fires on the eastern side of town, fueled by powerful hurricane winds, flared up and rapidly grew in size and intensity.1 By the afternoon, the fire had crossed the highway and entered the central historic district of Lahaina. Residents, some unaware of the conflagrations scope, were forced to self-evacuate, with traffic jams and poor communication hampering their ability to reach safety.


Much of the town lay in ruins by the following day. FEMA estimated that 2,207 structures had been destroyed in total, with 500 additional structures exposed to the blaze; 86% of the buildings destroyed were residential.2 As of August 12, 2023, the total estimated damage is close to $6 billion.3 

Over 1,000 people were missing following the event; the current death toll stands at 115 people

Other parts of the island, particularly the upland area of Kula, suffered fire damage as well, though only 16 structures were burned.

A learning opportunity

The areas of west Maui where the fires took place were known as potential wildfire hotspots. During June 2014, a nonprofit entity named the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization formulated a Wildfire Protection Plan for the Western Maui community, highlighting the dire susceptibility of the majority of the Lāhainā region to intense fire hazards.4 

Places across the western United States, and the world more broadly, are coming under increasing threat of wildfire, and the devastation in Maui provides a unique window into how we can better protect property and lives in the future.

Preventative measures

The 2023 Maui Fires and 2018 Camp Fire teach us similar lessons in the importance of prevention: both stress a need for vegetation and power grid management.

The 2014 report by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization noted that the areas surrounding Lahaina were a high-risk zone, and the federal government noted it as such: a profusion of non-native plants and drought conditions, among other things, had created an area extremely susceptible to brush fire. Similar conditions were noted prior to the Camp Fire, with Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) insufficient vegetation management practices and downed electrical distribution lines found culpable for the fire which resulted in 85 deaths.

It’s worth noting that, while conjecture surrounding the source of the Maui Fires has been hypothesized to be related to downed power lines, at the time of this article's publication, no definitive conclusion has been reached.


With growing frequency of power line-induced blazes, high-risk zones are considering underground alternatives.6 PG&E recently announced its plan to bury 10,000 miles of underground lines throughout California; similar plans across wildfire exposed areas, like Maui, could all but eliminate the chance of electricity induced fire threat.

The feasibility of implementing widescale upgrades to power grid infrastructure is, for most communities and electricity providers, unattainable: the cost of building underground power lines is roughly twice the price of constructing overhead lines.7 There are other ways, however, for power companies to avoid fire.

A review, commissioned by PG&E following the Camp Fire, determined that shutting off power during times of increased risk might be a successful strategy.8 Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) has been implemented as standard practice in several states, and PG&E describes the rationale as such: “when dry, windy weather is forecast, we may need to turn off power to prevent wildfires and keep you safe.”9 It seems extreme, and can incur anger from residents, but it's better to be safe than sorry. 

It's tough to say whether stronger vegetation management protocols or PSPS may have changed the outcome of what occurred in Lahaina. But for exposed communities, fire prevention, in any and all forms – including funding and staffing fire departments - can mean the difference between survival and devastation.

Home hardening

The wildland-urban interface (WUI), areas of development abutting wilderness, has increased exposure to wildfire; homes built within these areas benefit from exacting construction and maintenance practices. So-called “hardened homes” have been proven to have higher rates of survivability when exposed to fire, and the Lahaina fire illustrates this fact in an interesting way.10 

In the aftermath of the fire, aerial photography revealed the extent of the devastation. Among the charred remains, a single house stood seemingly untouched by the ravaging flames.


The owners, Dora and Atwater Millikin, had no intention of hardening their home against fire. They replaced an aged roof with heavy-gauge metal, cut back encroaching foliage from the sides of the house, and surrounded the home with a 3+ foot perimeter of stones, all with the intention of preservation and modernization. In so doing, they may have inadvertently saved the house from destruction.

Homes, especially wooden ones, are understandably vulnerable to fire, and no part of a house is as exposed as the roof. Old roofing material, especially wood and shingle, are particularly susceptible. By replacing their roof with a fire-resistant material, the Millikins greatly reduced the chances of stray embers causing ignition.

Another major factor influencing the chances a home will survive a wildfire are the maintenance of the home and the area surrounding it. The creation of defensible space around the home, including the removal of plants and other flammable materials, starves embers of needed fodder for ignition. Furthermore, hardscaping the perimeter space around a home adds an additional layer of protection.11 

In the midst of vast desolation, the Millikin’s home stands as a testament to the power of home hardening and maintenance.

Learn more about the importance of home hardening in our blog on the subject.

Being prepared

We’ve all heard something to the effect of “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” It sounds contrived, but in the case of wildfire and other forms of natural calamity, it couldn’t be truer.

By all accounts, the Lahaina fire came down hard and fast, leaving residents and visitors little time to evacuate. It’s in situations like these that the importance of preparation become all too apparent. Though 90% of preparation may go out the window in a crisis scenario, the 10% that remains could determine the outcome for you and your family.

Keep the car gassed up, a go-bag with necessities at the ready, and, even at the slightest hint of danger, get ready to move.

The NFPA has a wealth of further resources for individuals, families, and communities to better prepare for the unexpected:NFPA Resources

What it means for insurers

The fires in Maui are already considered to be the second costliest disaster in Hawaiian history, second only to the damage caused by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, and the cost to insurance is already estimated to be between $1-3 billion.12 

Natural disasters like this have been exacerbating crises in the insurance industry, and states like Florida, Louisiana, and California have already seen insurers pulling out due to increased exposure.

Wildfire and other types of natural risk are not going anywhere, and destructive events will persist. However, as mitigation and related practices become commonplace and demonstrate their effectiveness, communities currently thought uninsurable will be seen more favorably. Better hazard mitigation strategies benefit everyone: communities, individuals, governments, utility companies, and insurers.

Maui serves as a warning, but it also provides a rallying call. Communities must adopt better practices to avoid devastation; when they do, insurers should be receptive to providing coverage.


As a result of the devasting impact of recent wildfires, irreversible damage to property and a still rising death toll, the quaint seaside village of Lahaina has been forever changed.

Fire or not, Hawaii will always be a special place in the hearts and minds of people around the world. And while the pain of loss may be palpable, a vacation ruined stands in pale comparison to lives lost and culture forever destroyed. It’s important to center on those most affected: native Hawaiian populations.

If you wish to assist residents of Maui in their time of greatest need, consider donating to a community aid group.Provide Support

[1] CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2023/08/09/weather/maui-county-wildfires-hurricane-dora/index.html 

[2] Maui County, https://www.mauicounty.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=12683 

[3] CNN, https://www.cnn.com/us/live-news/hawaii-maui-wildfires-08-12-23/h_103422b391a34a9394427f666f3d94d1 

[4] Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/hawaii-maui-fire-risks-plans-government-e883f3a3 

[5] CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/15/officials-camp-fire-deadliest-in-california-history-was-caused-by-pge-electrical-transmission-lines.html 

[6] KCRA, https://www.kcra.com/article/pge-track-bury-10000-miles-underground-power-lines-high-fire-risk-areas/44645248 

[7] San Francisco Chronicle, https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Underground-power-lines-don-t-cause-wildfires-12295031.php 

[8] Slate, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2023/08/maui-fire-lahaina-kula-cause-deaths-warning.html 

[9] PG&E, https://www.pge.com/pge_global/common/pdfs/safety/emergency-preparedness/natural-disaster/wildfires/Public-Safety-Power-Shutoff-Fact-Sheet.pdf 

[10] Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/the-real-story-behind-that-photo-of-a-weirdly-unscathed-house-in-the-rubble-of-lahaina/ 

[11]  Ready for Wildfire, https://www.readyforwildfire.org/prepare-for-wildfire/get-ready/hardening-your-home/ 

[12] Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/hawaii-insurance-risk-spotlight-maui-wildfires-1820021 

Pavin Browne has seven years of content writing experience across several industries. He has a passion for research and enjoys creating unique and thoughtful marketing content.

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