About two-thirds of Hawaii’s acreage is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, setting the stage for what local wildfire experts predict could be an extraordinarily active wildfire season in the islands. 

People tend to think of the western United States when conjuring images of devastating wildfires. But as a percent of total land area, Hawaii’s wildfires burn as much or more land each year than any other state, studies show.

Last week a 1,400-acre brush fire that swept through guinea grass and eucalyptus trees in Paauilo on the Big Island did not torch any homes, but authorities said it was a close call. 

People are almost entirely to blame for wildfires in Hawaii, starting many of the blazes. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019

Wildfire experts and climate forecasters are predicting a particularly dry summer ahead, which could lead to an especially bad wildfire season.

A small fraction of land statewide — less than 1% on the Big Island’s west side — is already in severe drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

A forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predicted that drought will worsen in areas where it has already taken hold on the Big Island, Maui, Molokai and Lanai through September due to below-normal rainfall. 

By midsummer, new areas of drought are expected to develop in leeward Oahu and Kauai, according to the NOAA forecast.

Last week’s Big Island blaze ignited former sugarcane land that has stood fallow for years. During that time, it’s been invaded by invasive grasses, bushes and trees that burn more readily than native plants.

This rural region typically experiences wet conditions, but wildfire experts say in this era of climate change even areas that experience frequent rainfall can become susceptible to wildfires.

University of Hawaii wildland fire researcher Clay Trauernicht has found that the area burned annually by wildfires in Hawaii has increased fourfold in recent decades. This is partially a product of climate change, which is bringing the islands wetter and stormier winters coupled with drier and hotter summers — conditions that intensify the wildfire threat, he said.

Grasses and shrubs grew rapidly across much of the state this past winter, which was the eighth wettest on record in the last 30 years. Now that dry conditions have arrived, all this overgrown vegetation is essentially kindling in wait of an ignition. 

“You’ve got this sort of one-two punch when it comes to wildfire season in Hawaii,” Trauernicht said. “It’s not only drought. Coming out of a wet winter like we’ve had, you’ve got a lot of vegetation and particularly grasses that have done nothing but grow and grow and grow very fast. But they go from green to yellow to brown pretty quickly and that is making us way more vulnerable to these big, destructive fires.”

July and August are typically the worst months for wildfires in the islands.

Unlike hurricanes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, wildfires in Hawaii are almost entirely caused by people — and therefore can be prevented. Arson and unintentionally set fires are especially rampant.

Beyond burnt land and torched buildings, wildfires also threaten Hawaii’s air quality, agricultural production, drinking water, native forests, watersheds and coral reefs.

Wildfire researcher Clay Trauernicht says the African grasses and shrubs that have taken over Hawaii’s agricultural lands need to be managed to control wildfires. Courtesy: Clay Trauernicht/2019

There are two main methods of mitigating wildfire risk in Hawaii, according to Trauernicht. One is public education. To this end, firefighting agencies statewide kicked off an annual campaign this week that promotes wildfire prevention during the summer and fall months.

The other option is to reduce on-the-ground hazards, namely overgrown invasive grasses. Guinea grass, for example, can grow 6 inches a day, creating an enormous amount of self-replenishing fuel for fires while replacing native vegetation.

Statewide there are an estimated 1 million acres of nonnative grasses and shrubs which constitute a major wildfire hazard, Trauernicht said.

“That’s where Hawaii kind of lags behind, frankly, is that we don’t have enough funding committed to effectively reduce overgrown grasses and create safer conditions on the ground for our firefighters — at least not on the scale that’s necessary,” Trauernicht said. 

Civil Beat Deputy Editor Nathan Eagle contributed to this report.

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