Record Wildfire on Hawaiʻi Island Stable, Not Yet Contained
Firefighters have gotten more control over a wildfire on Hawaiʻi Island that forced thousands of people to evacuate over the weekend and destroyed at least two homes.
The wildfire prompted evacuation orders over the weekend for residents living in Waikoloa Village, Puʻu Kapu Hawaiian Homestead and Waikiʻi Ranch. All orders were lifted Sunday evening, but officials warned they could be reinstated at any time and that people should be ready to go.
On Monday evening, officials said the fire was stable, but not yet contained by firefighters. Crews remained on scene in the Waikiʻi area to continue battling the blaze through the evening.
“It’s the biggest (fire) we’ve ever had on this island,” Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth said of the more than 62-square-mile (160-square-kilometer) blaze. "With the drought conditions that we’ve had, it is of concern. You see something like this where you’re putting thousands of homes in danger, it’s very concerning.”
Two homes were confirmed destroyed in the fire. No injuries have been reported, as of Tuesday.
Some nearby roads were closed, making certain neighborhoods inaccessible, but there was no imminent threat to those houses.
By Monday evening, officials reopened Highway 190 and Waikoloa Road in both directions, with accessibility to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway. The Old Saddle Road is also open to one lane of traffic from Waikiʻi Ranch to Waimea with access to residents only.
According to the National Weather Service, strong winds and generally dry conditions will continue throughout the islands on Tuesday, and ease only slightly on Wednesday.
“Our current wind forecast is showing wind patterns between 18 to 20 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph," Hawaiʻi County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd said Sunday night. “And so while throughout the evening our crews will be working to build fire breaks with dozers and back burns, this temporary lift on the mandatory evacuation may have to be reinforced later on due to prevailing weather patterns.”
The fire chief said nearby communities could be inundated with smoke and that anyone with health or breathing problems should find somewhere else to stay.
Roth, the island's mayor, said the way the wind comes through the area makes it difficult to fight the flames and that officials and residents must stay vigilant.
“The winds kind of swirl, so they’ll be coming at one direction for a couple of minutes and then all of a sudden, they’re blowing in a different direction; that makes it really very difficult to fight a fire when you have swirling winds,” Roth said.
Fires in Hawaiʻi are unlike many of those burning in the U.S. West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires.
Even though Hawaiʻi has a wet, tropical climate that isn’t typically at risk from large fires, blazes could become more frequent as climate change-related weather patterns intensify.
The islands have seen a downward trend in overall rainfall in recent years. Drought conditions have reached the most severe level in some parts of Hawaiʻi in recent years, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Drought that is tied to climate change has made wildfires harder to fight.
HPR's The Conversation spoke to Marty Moran of the Hawaiʻi County Red Cross about the wildfire and preparing for emergencies.
"Have a go kit, have your important papers set aside, know where you're going to go, set up a phone tree with your family so you can get information out to them when you're safe — and then follow all the instructions that come over the radio and through the news media from the local government, and be ready to react," he said. "We'll be there for you, we'll be waiting."