This article was written by Lily Maiden, an undergraduate student at the Humanitarian & Conflict Response Institute (HCRI), as part of the module ‘Introduction to Disaster Management’ (HCRI11032). It was selected for publication due to the quality of writing and analysis.


Figure 1: The Destruction of Lahaina (Source: Phillip Cheung, 2023)

The Maui wildfires of 2023 were the deadliest in recent US history (Fowers, 2023). The flames that claimed over 100 lives (Fowers, 2023) decimated the town of Lahaina. In the face of such devastation, many of us worry about the increasing frequency of ‘natural disasters’ we are witnessing worldwide. However, the term ‘natural’ is contestable. The word suggests inevitability and that we can escape from any human responsibility. The reason this wildfire became a disaster certainly does not lie with nature. Avoiding responsibility is not an option when we consider the colonial legacies that have impacted Hawai’i’s adaptive capacity for decades. We must place some responsibility on the human induced factors that made Lahaina susceptible to the flames, and the fires so damaging.

Figure 2 – The Natural Fire Cycle (Source: Open Space Authority, 2024)

So why do we think of wildfires as a ‘natural’ disaster? Well, they are a natural element of a healthy ecosystem. Wildfires ignited by heat from the sun, or a lightning strike, have been burning in many different climates for hundreds of millions of years (National Geographic Society, 2023). In fact, wildfires are essential to some plant species for survival and propagation (CAL FIRE, 2023). They are also very effective at managing the spread of disease and allow for habitat regeneration by clearing forest floors of debris (National Geographic Society, 2023). In their natural occurrence, if a wildfire avoids human settlement in its path it is not considered a disaster.

Environmental Factors

Disasters require exposure. Without exposure to the buildings in Lahaina, the wildfire could have been non-disastrous. Additionally, the fires were likely ignited by a fallen power line and high winds from Hurricane Dora which passed along its coast (Anguiano, 2023). The ignition of the fires as a result of failed human infrastructure and its exposure to the town of Lahaina are elements of the disaster to which we cannot give nature the blame.

Another way to dispel this ‘natural’ myth is to make the connection with climate change. The number of hectares burnt by wildfires globally increased by 3 million between 2001 and 2023 (MacCarthy, J. et al., 2023). This is as a result of global warming (C2ES, no date). Climate change is not natural. It is a product of increased global carbon emissions and has meant that wildfires in Hawai’i have become much more common (Yousif, 2023).

Table 1 – Climate Change and Wildfires (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2022)

Aside from considering the wider cause and exposure that created the disaster, we must understand why Lahaina was so vulnerable and burnt so devastatingly quickly. Many other communities have developed resilience to their wildfire risk such as Cape Town (C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, 2021) and indigenous communities like Sebyan-Kyuyol in Russia (Villaverde Canosa et al., 2024). These communities work with the natural necessity of fires to mitigate their risks (Villaverde Canosa et al., 2024). What then has limited Hawai’i’s adaptive capacity to creating resilience?


Hawai’i was annexed by the USA in 1898. Annexation is arguably synonymous with colonialism as it constitutes the forcible control by a foreign power (Cambridge Dictionary, 2023). Since 1898 there have been many colonialist endeavours on the Hawai’ian islands, principally the reform of their agricultural systems (Goldberg-Hiller and Silva, 2015). Prior to colonisation, Hawai’i had higher biodiversity and many wetland areas (Bonilla, 2023). Colonial settlers created pineapple and sugar monocrop plantations and introduced non-native species (Miller, 2023). There is now little wetland (Van Rees and Michael Reed, 2014) as their waters were diverted to support these plantations (Miller, 2023). This is evident in Lahaina, which was overpopulated with non-native, flammable, dry grasses that fuelled the flames (Anderson, 2023). If the 2023 wildfires had occurred in Hawai’i pre-colonisation, it would not have been the same disaster.

Socio-Economic Factors

Economic vulnerabilities should also be taken into account. Hawai’i has the highest average housing prices of any state in the USA (UHERO, 2023) and ranks 13th in US state population density (World Population Review, 2024). Colonialist legacies again echo here, as post annexation saw mass migration of non-natives to the islands (Gessler, 1942). This is imperative to consider as research has shown that the proximity of buildings played a big role in the spread of the fire (Juliano et al., 2024).

Table 2 – Median Home Value Across States (Source: UHERO, 2023)

During the immediate response phase of the disaster, there were many shortfalls that increased Lahaina’s vulnerability to the flames. The Western Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan (Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, 2014) had not been updated since 2014, despite the occurrence of other major hazards, such as Hurricane Lane in 2018, that warranted increased preparation for wildfires (Honore, 2023). The only evacuation map available on the Maui County website was for tsunamis, which instructed evacuees to head for the foothills (Lin et al., 2023). This introduced a major potential risk, as that was the direction in which the fires were quickly spreading (Juliano et al., 2024). Hawai’i has a huge siren system, which was originally installed for tsunamis. The decision not to use the system on the night of August 8th, also stemmed from fear that people would head for the foothills (Gegan, 2023). This was a critical flaw in Hawai’i’s preparedness, and a contributing factor to the worsening of the disaster.

Figure 3 – Tsunami Evacuation Map Lahaina (Source: Pacific Disaster Centre, no date)

The commodification of Hawai’i after its annexation created an economy heavily reliant on tourism (Zhou et al., 1997). This had huge implications in the recovery phase. With businesses burnt to the ground, and the immediate decrease in tourism, Maui’s resilience has been heavily challenged. Reports show that the number of people that applied for unemployment jumped from 130 to 4444 the week after the fire (Dobbyn, 2023). A public health study by UHERO showed that 74% of participants had a decrease in their household income following the fire, and that 24% do not have access to steady medical care (UHERO, 2024).

So next time you see a disaster unfolding, pause. Rather than alleviating responsibility from ourselves by calling it ‘natural’, we must question how it has become a disaster. If a fire had broken out in Hawai’i away from a densely populated coastal town, if climate change and colonialism had not shaped a dry, monoculture environment, and if the community of Lahaina had been able to diversify from tourism and to mitigate their potential wildfire risk, would there have been a disaster at all?



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