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2023 was a tragic and bizarre year of wildfires. Will it mark a turning point?

Two women embrace and cry as they look out over Lahaina, in Maui, Hawaii, which was severely damaged by a wildfire in August.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Two women embrace and cry as they look out over Lahaina, in Maui, Hawaii, which was severely damaged by a wildfire in August.

Come August, it's usually the massive wildfires in California and the West that are dominating the headlines. But not this year. The remnants of Hurricane Hilary were dumping record rain on the mostly arid region and instead it was the tropics that were on fire.

In Hawaii on Aug. 8, gale force winds from a different hurricane — Dora — collided with extremely dry terrain on the western coast of Maui. Toppled power lines helped ignite what would become the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, killing 100 people and destroying most of the historic tourist town of Lahaina.

Some had no other means of escape but to jump into the ocean.

In the aftermath of the fires, a seaside resort just north of Lahaina was transformed into an emergency assistance center and shelter. A shaken David Ormsbee said he was grateful to make it out alive along with his girlfriend and cat.

"The smoke just kept getting blacker," he said. "It started getting hotter and hotter and we just got the hell out."

The fire destroyed his apartment and the business where he worked. The couple felt fortunate to have a car on loan from his sister.

"It's just the matter of the waiting game, you know, what do you do next? I'm working one day at a time," Ormsbee said.

A waiting game that could take months if not years to return to some sense of normalcy, if recent climate-driven wildfire disasters are any indication.

In terms of land burned, 2023 was a relatively quiet fire year

Tragic, unthinkable and even bizarre may be words that best sum up 2023 when it comes to wildfires. There were the deadly blazes in the tropics, but also near the Canadian arctic, causing thick, toxic smoke to blow down the US eastern seaboard for weeks. Meanwhile, the western U.S. seemed to enjoy a relative reprieve. Nationwide, about 2.6 million acres burned, compared to 7.5 million last year and more than ten million in 2020.

On Maui, it's widely believed it could take a decade or longer to fully recover. Reconstruction is still a long ways out as crews are still clearing debris. There was also already a severe housing and labor shortage before the fires.

People put up a fence around the homes burned by the wildfire in Lahaina on Aug. 22.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
People put up a fence around the homes burned by the wildfire in Lahaina on Aug. 22.

"When we think about recovery in basic terms, we're often thinking, well, how long does it take to rebuild a house, maybe a couple years if there's a backlog in contractors," says Catrin Edgeley, professor of forestry at Northern Arizona University. "But a rebuilt house does not mean that you're recovered."

Even rebuilding a home in two years after a wildfire is considered fast. Edgeley researched survivors of the Marshall Fire that ignited in the winter near Boulder, Colorado two years ago. She found that many fire victims can be retraumatized during the recovery because they have to prove and rehash the crisis again to their insurance companies and FEMA. It can slow everything down further.

"And that can take a significant toll if you think about the stress that can create, the re-living of that experience over and over," Edgeley says.

2023 also marked a milestone for Paradise, California

Many survivors of wildfires today are quickly encountering a sobering reality: Even if they have insurance, it's usually not enough to cover the costs of rebuilding, particularly in this era of high inflation.

In some parts of the West, particularly California, fire survivors are also struggling to even get insurance for homes they plan to rebuild.

In a forest just outside Paradise, California, Bernadette Grant and Richard Fox have only recently come up with a long term plan to rebuild on property she owns that the family used to use as a camping area.

"As you can see we're slowly but surely clearing out the space," Grant says.

Grant, who grew up in Paradise, lost her home in the 2018 Camp Fire, as did her mother who is in her 80s and recently moved back into a newly built home on her property in town.

Bernadette Grant and Richard Fox stand in front of solar panels on property where they plan to build a home near Paradise, Calif.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
Bernadette Grant and Richard Fox stand in front of solar panels on property where they plan to build a home near Paradise, Calif.

During a break from thinning trees on the property, her partner Richard Fox says they're not even sure if the property can be insured. He points to a cluster of trees 100 yards or so to his left which he says would catch fire almost immediately with lightning or some other ignition.

"We're not even close yet to that stage of bringing someone in and trying to get insurance on it," Fox says.

Before Lahaina, the Camp Fire had been the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century - it claimed 85 lives. For survivors like Fox and Grant, the crisis in Maui stirred up bad memories. It's still fresh they say, as they continue work cutting trees that they'll use for lumber to build a modest cabin. Right now, they're living in an RV on the property.

"In the meantime we just keep clearing the property," Grant says as Fox chimes in: "Trying to make it safe, that's all we can do."

This Fall, Paradise leaders and other Camp Fire survivors have been meeting with their counterparts in Lahaina, guiding them on how to recover from the unthinkable.

This year marked some positive milestones for Paradise, however, where state of the art power lines were buried underground, the downtown was refurbished with sidewalks and new bike paths that also serve as egress escape routes.

"There's a tremendous amount of optimism and sense of community," says Mitchell Snyder, a disaster recovery expert at the University of California-Davis. "They're rebuilding something and they know that they're an underdog in all this and they're excited about that."

A vacant lot in Paradise, California where a home stood before the 2018 Camp Fire.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
A vacant lot in Paradise, California where a home stood before the 2018 Camp Fire.

Today, about a third of Paradise has been rebuilt. Snyder says that's remarkable when you consider that almost 19,000 homes and businesses burned in and around Paradise in 2018 - including 90% of the town itself.

"In the future, as we look towards the one year anniversary of Lahaina, just remember that there are people behind the numbers that we see on the headlines," Snyder says. "For so many people this was the worst day of their life."

Is 2023 finally a turning point in U.S. Firefighting Policy?

One silver lining of this tragic and bizarre fire year, according to experts, is that the wildfire threat might be a lot more real to decision makers in Washington, D.C.

Toxic smoke turned the skies an apocalyptic orange up and down the east coast, obscuring the Manhattan skyline for weeks, giving a glimpse of what many summers in the West are already like. Pressure is building to prioritize prevention, instead of waiting to fight these modern megafires later.

In Hawaii, a shell-shocked Curt Hanthorn was waiting in line to get his mail at the Post Office in Lahaina a couple weeks after the fire in August. He said he was frustrated by all the finger pointing after the crisis.

"Pointing blame, it's the electric company's fault, it's the county's fault, it's Joe Biden's fault, it's everybody's fault," Hanthorn said. "The fact of the matter is I saw it from the beginning it moved so fast...like a blow torch."

No one is stopping fires like these, he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.