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Wildfires continue in Maui: Thousands of displaced people will need housing


The death toll from the extreme wildfires on Maui has risen to at least 55 people, a number that officials say they expect will rise. And officials are still taking stock of the damage there. Yesterday Hawaii's governor, Josh Green, said that many hundreds of homes have been destroyed. And while it will take time to know the full extent of the damage, he expects the cost to be in the billions of dollars. Six shelters are open on the island, and thousands of displaced people will need housing. NPR's Lauren Sommer is in Maui and spoke to people at an evacuation center. Hi, Lauren.


SUMMERS: Lauren, these fires just moved at a shocking speed. What are people there telling you about what it was like for them?

SOMMER: Yeah. I think shocking is really the right word. People are very much feeling that. I spoke to several residents from Lahaina, which is the town where the fire was just so destructive and people lost their lives. One of them, Paul, who didn't want to give his last name because there's just so much overwhelming media attention - he said the flames are moving incredibly fast.

PAUL: Jump house to house, all the plants, all the streets. The smoke was so big. And actually, they were saying on the radio, remain calm, everything is fine - while everything was burning. So, no.

SOMMER: He jumped in the car and left. But he says he's not surprised that people got trapped, just given how narrowly he got out.

SUMMERS: Wow. Does he know yet what's happened to his home or the homes of his neighbors?

SOMMER: Yeah. I actually talked to him at the evacuation center at Maui High School. There are several hundred people there. And there's actually this big TV up with the news playing. And it's showing aerial footage of what Lahaina looks like now. So that's how we found out that his home is gone. I mean, even as we were standing there, he could point to the screen to show me the exact block, which was his, and it was just rubble.

SUMMERS: That's just devastating. Lauren, do we have any idea yet how many people are still missing?

SOMMER: There's actually a big list of names at the shelter, maybe a thousand names on it of people that are being searched for. And many have been found on that list. But there are still a lot that are unknown. Ted Lusk was searching the list there. He has two tenants in Lahaina.

TED LUSK: I have a family. And the wife is hapai, as we say in Hawaii - pregnant - eight months now. And we talked to them two days ago, but they had no idea that it would proceed to disastrous effects.

SOMMER: He's hopeful they're OK, based on where they live, but he's not sure because the power has been out near Lahaina, and communication has been really tough.

SUMMERS: I mean, I think a big question that a lot of people have is just how the fatality count could be so devastating. You work with our Climate Desk, and I know that you have covered a lot of fires. Do we know what it was about these fires specifically that made them so dangerous and so deadly?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, wind was certainly a big part of it. It was at least 60 miles per hour. And that's what can cause a wildfire to move so quickly. The trade winds are a normal part of Hawaii, but in this case, Hurricane Dora was passing south of the islands, and that created a big difference in air pressure, which led to those high winds. I mean, certainly, the fires with big fatalities in the western U.S., like the Camp Fire in California in 2018, those also had really dangerous winds. But then the other factor is what's there to burn. And Maui does have landscapes that are very flammable.

SUMMERS: Right. I mean, many of us learning this week that wildfires are not uncommon in Hawaii. So where does the greatest risk come from then?

SOMMER: Yeah. These are naturally drier sides of the island. And the land has changed quite a bit in some places because it was converted into fields, like for sugarcane and pineapples. I talked to ‪Clay Trauernicht‬, who's an ecosystem specialist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. And he says, you know, as agriculture has shrunk, those former fields have been overrun by invasive grasses.

‪CLAY TRAUERNICHT‬: And when I'm talking grasslands, I'm not talking about kind of like knee-high prairie. This is like waist to overhead tropical grasses which kind of obtain amazing amounts of biomass. And so when they burn, they burn really explosively.

SOMMER: And that's a big risk, especially as climate change makes it hotter and drier. So if Hawaii is going to reduce that risk, dealing with those fuels is going to be key.

SUMMERS: Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk reporting from Maui. Lauren, thank you.

SOMMER: Yeah. Thanks. 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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