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The images from Maui are devastating. What made these wildfires so damaging?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Hawaii, at least 96 people are dead. Hundreds more are still missing. So that number is expected to rise as crews comb through the destruction in Lahaina, where some 2,700 buildings are destroyed. The state attorney general's office has promised a comprehensive review of the wildfire response. To discuss this, I'm joined by Elizabeth Pickett. She is the co-executive director of Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. Good morning.

ELIZABETH PICKETT: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Elizabeth, before we get into this, I did want to - I know you're not in Maui, but is your family OK? Are your loved ones OK? Are your friends OK, that you know of?

PICKETT: That I know of, you know, all of my people are OK. There are a few people I haven't been able to reach, but I work in wildfire, and I have a feeling they're just very busy with the response at the moment.

FADEL: Well, let's talk about that response. First of all, if we could talk about just why these wildfires caused so much damage so quickly. I mean, the images from Maui are so devastating.

PICKETT: Yeah. You know, in this case, it was the worst possible confluence of factors. We have drought conditions across the state. We have an existing prevalence of highly ignitable, invasive, fire-prone vegetation. In this case, we had winds above 60mph. But we are a very windy state anyway, and this was a particularly windy time period. And then in this - in Lahaina, once the fire was ignited and burning in the wildland environment, which is where our known risk is, that fire was then blown into the built environment. And it just turned into a structure-to-structure fire that moved at extreme speeds. And these kinds of situations are to be expected at this point because Hawaii is not a fire-adapted ecosystem. The land and communities here exposed to wildfire risk - that has increased so fast over the last few decades. And in cases like this where we have wind-driven fire events, they're just extremely dangerous. They prevent us from using - fully using many of our firefighting resources because they result in fires that are so fast moving that emergency services can't even keep pace. In this case, it was even too windy. And we don't have the right kind of access and infrastructure to get in there quickly. So this - Hawaii is not the only place that this happens, and Maui is not the only place in Hawaii. But these are issues that we're all kind of grappling with.

FADEL: Now, this is being called the largest, most devastating wildfire in over a hundred years. How much do you attribute to extreme climate causing this type of destruction and this kind of fire?

PICKETT: It's tricky because the science is really new, and we don't quite have enough of it to really make that causal relationship. But what we do know is that over the last hundred years, we've been experiencing more and more drought episodes and larger and more frequent, you know, hurricanes and storm systems coming by. And I imagine that we are going to have science that starts to connect the two more and more. But we are seeing fires from Pacific islands to boreal forests. You know, we know that this is...

FADEL: Yeah.

PICKETT: ...A time where fire risk is really increasing all over the place.

FADEL: A report by the state of Hawaii last year suggested that the risk of wildfire was low or medium. Did Hawaii underestimate the threat of wildfires?

PICKETT: You know, I don't know if it underestimated it. We have some reports and some folks who, you know, might have said that it was low, but there are lots of reports. Our organization, our fire agencies, lots of us actually have other reports and other research studies that we've done that show that it was high. So unfortunately, the worst outcomes have come to pass. And I know that our elected partners at the federal and state levels are committed to learning from this tragic fire. And those of us who've been working in the field of wildfire preparedness in Hawaii for a couple of decades are really committed to being of service to that process and really welcome that broader learning from everyone so that we can catch up everyone to the level of risk that we really are facing now.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, how do you assess the response to the wildfires? You mentioned difficulty with access. And what do you need in the coming days from the government?

PICKETT: We need major and massive investments in infrastructure, community risk reduction programming and natural resource management that can help us resist these kind of impacts.

FADEL: Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization. Thank you for taking the time.

PICKETT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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