Photos show giant 150-year-old banyan tree before and after it was scorched in Maui fires. It may not survive.

Lahaina’s old courthouse building and the banyan tree that’s lived behind it for over 150 years were badly damaged by Maui’s fires. Peter Unger via Getty Images; Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images© Peter Unger via Getty Images; Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

  • Wildfires on the island of Maui have killed dozens of people and destroyed homes and buildings in Lahaina.
  • Photos suggest the town’s iconic banyan tree may not survive the fire damage, experts told Insider. 
  • The climate crisis is driving more severe weather that can overlap with devastating consequences.

Multiple wildfires have devastated the island of Maui in Hawaii this week. Strong winds from Hurricane Dora spread the fires, which killed at least 67 people and displaced thousands of others, The New York Times reported.

Photos show giant 150-year-old banyan tree before and after it was scorched in Maui fires. It may not survive.

The destruction was particularly severe in the town of Lahaina, home to about 12,000 people. Several historic buildings were damaged, including the Baldwin Home Museum, the 200-year-old Waiola Church, and the Pioneer Inn.

Photos also show the singed banyan, a giant tree that’s sat in front of the city’s old courthouse for 150 years.

“The banyan tree is so iconic,” Kaniela Ing, a seventh-generation Native Hawaiian from Maui, told Democracy Now! “The images of it being completely toasted is heartbreaking.”

J.B. Friday, an extension forester with the University of Hawaii, isn’t sure the banyan tree can withstand the damage. “The fire was hot enough to burn all those buildings in the neighborhood,” he told Insider in an email. “Even if the tree survives, it would likely not be healthy and probably be a hazard going forward with all the dead branches.” 

1 of 7 Photos in Gallery © Maxar Technologies/Reuters Before-and-after satellite photos show how Maui’s wildfires have turned a coastal town into ash

  • Maui’s historic town of Lahaina has been decimated by the wildfires raging this week.
  • Dozens of people are dead, sites built in the 1800s, and the island’s oldest tree have been destroyed.
  • Satellite images show the town before and after the fires struck this week.  

Photos show giant 150-year-old banyan tree before and after it was scorched in Maui fires. It may not survive.

Parts of Maui have been devastated this week by wildfires raging across the island, killing dozens of people, forcing thousands to evacuate, and wiping out power and cell phone service in the hardest hit areas. 

The western coast of Maui has been hit particularly hard, and the historic town of Lahaina is now mostly rubble.

The Maui Fire Department said in a press release Wednesday that the town suffered “widespread damage” with over 271 structures damaged by the fire. 

Before-and-after satellite images show how the culturally significant town, once home to around 12,000 people, has been reduced to ash. See More

Maui arborist Timothy Griffith Jr. hasn’t been able to look at the banyan because conditions in the area are still too unsafe. “The fact that it’s still standing is giving us hope that something can be done to at least save some portion of it,” he told Insider via email.

“It’s said that if the roots are healthy, it will likely grow back,” Maui officials said in an update on Friday. “But it looks burned.”

Senator Brian Schatz wrote on X on Thursday that the tree was “smoldering at the base.”

Related video: Maui Wildfire Coverage: Aug. 10 updates at 6 p.m. (KCRA Sacramento)

Authorities say at least 53 people died in the fire.

Maui Wildfire Coverage: Aug. 10 updates at 6 p.m.Unmute

To understand why the banyan is so special to residents, it’s important to grasp the scope of the tree. Its 16 trunks stretch over almost an acre. Green leaves and branches reach over 60 feet in the air, offering dappled shade for the park below.

Lahaina’s banyan tree has provided shade in the park below. Jennifer McDermott/AP Photo© Jennifer McDermott/AP Photo

The town decorates the tree with Christmas lights and uses it as a backdrop for all kinds of events, from music performances to 5K runs to car shows. It’s a landmark that has become instantly identifiable with Lahaina, and it’s now scorched and scarred, along with many other parts of the island.

Scientists must conduct further analysis to attribute any single event to climate change. However, overall, the warming of the oceans and atmosphere allows hurricanes to whip themselves into a more forceful frenzy, with more powerful winds, as was the case with Hurrican Dora.

At the same time, flash droughts are becoming more common. One of them suddenly struck Hawaii just weeks before these fires, with dry, hot air sucking moisture out of the islands’ vegetation and making it perfect wildfire fuel, the AP reported.

As extreme weather events become more common and more severe, experts say they will surely overlap more often with devastating consequences. That’s what happened in Lahaina.

How the banyan tree came to Lahaina

Banyans (Ficus benghalensis) aren’t native to the island. Lahaina’s came from India. Sheriff William Owen Smith planted the 8-foot sapling in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina.

In the decades following, it was the location for King Kamehameha III’s birthday party and an 1898 ceremony when Hawaii became a US territory, according to the city’s website.

Banyan trees have aerial roots that sprout from branches. When they touch the ground, they can implant and become trunks. Because of this, they’re sometimes called “walking trees.” The new trunks are still part of the same tree, but they can look like a small forest clumped together. 

Before the Maui fires, the banyan tree was a popular gathering place because of its size and shade. James Leynse via Getty Images; Brian Schatz via X/via REUTERS© James Leynse via Getty Images; Brian Schatz via X/via REUTERS

Lahaina’s community gardeners cultivated a symmetrical layout for the trunks by attaching water-filled pickle jars to some roots and pruning others. Arborists have continued to trim the roots to keep the banyan from spreading beyond the park.

Figs are the fleshy stems of inflorescences, which contain a bunch of flowers and seeds. For pollination, banyan trees rely on a fig wasp, Eupristina masoni. Female wasps lay their eggs and deposit pollen in the tree’s figs before dying. 

When the wasps die, the figs digest their bodies. Other animals, like monkeys and myna birds, then consume the figs and distribute the seeds. But in areas where they were introduced, the trees can’t be pollinated if the wasps don’t live there as well.  

Banyans are long-lived trees. Researchers have found adaptations that help them survive drought, certain pathogens, and high winds. If not for the fire, the tree may have stood for centuries more.

Here’s how to support emergency efforts in Maui.

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