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Lessons Maui can take from other states to protect against future wildfire disasters


Maui residents are in the long process of picking up the pieces after the deadly wildfires two weeks ago. State officials have said that they will do a full investigation about what went wrong. Hawaii doesn't have to look far for ways to make communities safer from future fires. Other states like California have led the way in wildfire policy. And Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk is here with more about what Hawaii can do. Hi, Lauren.


CHANG: So, I mean, with more than a hundred people losing their lives after these wildfires, it seems like evacuation will be a key thing for Hawaii to focus on. What can the state do better?

SOMMER: So Maui's officials did one important thing as the fire was raging, which was to send an alert to people's phones. They use the same system that Amber Alerts use, you know, which are the alerts for missing children. And it goes to everybody's phones - right? - not just the people who opt in. The problem is that most people I spoke to in Lahaina didn't get it.


SOMMER: Officials say that the high winds and the flames had taken out the cell towers by then. So that really just left one other option, which was the Lahaina's network of sirens.

CHANG: Right. But the big question there was those emergency managers did not turn on those sirens, right?

SOMMER: Yeah, exactly. Officials said they felt people would associate them with tsunami warnings and that turning them on would confuse them and make them run into the hills, which was where the flames were coming from. I met one resident who lost his home, Alex Calma, who doesn't really buy that.

ALEX CALMA: If I would have heard the siren that morning, I would have at least prepared, packed something in my car, called my parents, tell them, hey; get ready.

SOMMER: There are newer kinds of sirens that Hawaii could look at, which are sirens that broadcast a warning tone and voice instructions. Some cities have these already. So after that alert, you know, a voice would tell you what kind of danger there is, you know, whether it's a wildfire or a tsunami or winds. And then residents would have more information about what to do.

CHANG: Right. OK, so that's evacuation. We've also been hearing about the dry grasses around Lahaina. What have other states done about managing the vegetation?

SOMMER: Right, yeah, because those grasses are very flammable. And Maui County officials knew that was a danger before the fires happened. To deal with that, California and other states have passed rules that require residents in risky areas to clear that dry vegetation around their homes. You know, it's called defensible space. And there are actually inspections to make sure it's done. And in places like San Diego, you know, if you don't do it, the city hires a contractor to do it and then puts a lien on your property to recoup the cost. So...


SOMMER: They take it very seriously.

CHANG: Right. OK, so I get that clearing vegetation around a house can help, but what about the house itself and making sure that that is less likely to burn?

SOMMER: Yeah. Yeah, that's definitely another important thing. California and a handful of other states have focused on that because, you know, wildfires - they send this rain of embers ahead of the fire itself. And those get caught on houses, you know, like on a wood roof or inside a gutter. So wildfire building codes require the use of fire-resistant materials if you're building a new house and you live in a risky area. And Michael Wara, who studies wildfire policy at Stanford University, says it's important that those building codes are mandatory.

MICHAEL WARA: Communities need to start investing in those strategies and perhaps recognizing that, you know, everyone is in this together, that people, you know, need to be given assistance to do these things and they also need to be pushed.

SOMMER: And it's not necessarily more expensive to build your house that way. But, you know, those building codes have failed in a few Western states because home builder associations have pushed back on them. So, you know, the fire experts I spoke to in Hawaii say just given that devastating loss of life, they're really hopeful that lawmakers will take a serious look at those policies that other states have figured out.

CHANG: That is Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk. Thank you so much, Lauren.

SOMMER: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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