Aug 24th, 2023

Maui Wildfires and Air Evacuations

Posted in Aviation News

The Maui Wildfires began on August 8, 2023.  Here is how air evacuations and airpower helped bring relief. 

The Cause

In a unique combination of factors, the Hawaiian island of Maui was hit by devastating wildfires on August 8, 2024.  The cause of the fire was a combination of strong winds, dry vegetation and low humidity.  Maui has been in a drought this year with rains staying away.  Meanwhile Hurricane Dora, several hundred miles to the south caused an area of low pressure while a separate high pressure system lay to the north of Maui.  The result: Maui was an island sandwich between two pressure systems, causing extremely high winds as air rushed between the systems.   

The Result

What began as what was described as a small brush fire in “upcountry” region of Maui in the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday by midday had erupted into a ferocious wildfire.  A timeline reveals that by the afternoon of August 8, citizens were jumping into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames.  By the time it was over, it became the deadliest wildfire in the United States in over 100 years.  Particularly hard hit was the tourist town and economic engine of Maui, the town of Lahaina.  A picturesque little town where I had played basketball on outdoor courts against native Hawaiians as a high schooler. 

The Airports

The Island of Maui is served by three separate airports.  The largest is Kahului Airport located in the northern portion of the island.  This puts the airport at a 45 minute drive from Lahaina, the center of the deadliest fires.  This location is fortunate as almost all commercial air traffic comes in and out of Kahului’s 7,000 foot main runway (see below).

Kahului Airport

Hana Airport (HNM) is on the east side of the island, the farthest from the wildfires.  However, Kapalua Airport (JHM) is on the west side in the thick of the wildfires, six miles from Lahaina.  Both of these airports are smaller commuter type airports. 

The Air Evacuation

When it comes to natural disasters, often aircraft (airplanes and/or helicopters) are the fastest and most efficient method for evacuating stranded souls.  The Maui fires are a prime example.

The airlines stepped up to the plate by sending more flights and bigger airplanes in and out of Maui as quickly as possible.  Nearly 11,000 people were air evacuated on Wednesday, the day after the fires started.  The total jumped to nearly 15,000 on Thursday.  Many, including this author, have been critical of airline greed over the years (witness their handling of COVID bailout money). 

However, in this case I will give credit to where credit is due.  Many airlines offered $19 fares to get people off the Island, they did not want money to get in the way of anyone leaving the island.  A pilot on vacation offered to pilot an airplane off the island.  Each airline seemed to play a role.  Often sending in larger aircraft than scheduled in order to handle more passengers (e.g., from a smaller Airbus A321 to a larger Boeing 777). 

Equally important, as the airlines flew out planes loaded with evacuees, they flew in mostly empty planes with needed supplies and materials with additional emergency personnel.  As we first saw during the Berlin Airlift, airpower has the power to help alleviate human suffering.  To learn more about how the capability started watch the video on the Wright Brothers

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