The destructive link between drought conditions and wildfire events is at an all-time high in Hawaii, and experts are only expecting it to get worse.

From arson fires on Maui to unattended campfires on Oahu — over 90% of fires that occur in Hawaii are caused by people, said Mike Walker, State Wildland Fire Manager with the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Walker and other officials held a press conference Tuesday in Hawaii Kai to talk about the increasing risk of wildfires in the state.

“Firefighters showing up at your home is the last thing you want,” Walker said. “We need to have several steps before that.”

DLNR Wildfire News Conference
From left: Matt Glei, Carl Otsuka, Derek Wroe and Mike Walker talk about the link between drought and wildfires. Courtesy: DLNR/2022

Though recent rainfall has temporarily eased drought conditions, almost half of the state’s population, including large portions of Oahu, Maui County and the Big Island, continue to live in moderate to extreme drought conditions. Only Kauai is currently drought free.

“These dry conditions are expected to continue into October and possibly into November,” said Derek Wroe, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Honolulu Forecast Office. “What that means is that the fire season, which peaks usually in the middle of the summer, could last into what is normally the beginning of the wet season next year.”

Walker and Wroe, along with a fire inspector, and a board member of the Firewise Community, shared ongoing insight and future drought predictions for Hawaii, as well as advised residents to prevent any avoidable incidents and to be prepared if one does occur.

The Firewise Community is a program run by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, and a nationwide effort that aims to protect communities from wildfires. Currently, there are 10 Firewise Communities on the Big Island, three on Maui and one each on Molokai and Oahu.

Ideally, every community that’s in a high fire-prone area could go through a certification process to become a Firewise Community, according to Andrea “Nani” Barretto, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization.

“The climate is changing,” Barretto said. “It is no longer a Leeward or Windward issue. Fires are happening on all sides of all islands … and there’s so much that we can do ahead of time to prepare our families, our yards, our homes, our communities for fire.”

Carl Otsuka, a fire inspector at the Honolulu Fire Department, said people should take several preventive steps, including properly disposing of cut grass and trees, keeping rain gutters and roofs clear of debris, and cooking at least 10 feet away from any building.

Otsuka also suggested avoiding using woods such as kiawe or any other type of mesquite, as “they throw embers from your grill and could possibly start a brush fire or a house fire.”

Walker noted that about a quarter of state lands are covered in fire-prone grasses and shrubs, and unlike other parts of the world, Hawaii’s native systems don’t regenerate in response to fire.

“When these grasses burn, they can burn up into our forests and our forested watersheds … converting those forests to grasslands,” Walker said.

Burned soil runoff can smother coral reef ecosystems, inadvertently creating an economic impact on fisheries, he said.

“It’s not too late,” Barretto said. “We just need to come together and think through what’s possible for a future that is wildfire-ready and resilient.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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