Hawaiʻi Island wildfire has burned 39 square miles near Pohakuloa Training Area
A large wildfire in a rural area on the Big Island, dubbed the Leilani fire, is not threatening any homes, but high winds and extremely dry conditions are making it difficult for crews to contain the blaze.
The fire started in the western reaches of the U.S. Army's Pohakuloa Training Area, above the town of Waikōloa and in between Mauna Loa and Maunakea volcanoes.
The fire had burned about 39 square miles as of Friday morning — up from 15 square miles on Thursday. The fire is estimated to be 30% contained.
As recently as Wednesday night, the Leilani fire was an estimated 1 square mile, according to the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources.
"Relative humidity is in the 25% range, and while winds currently are lower than the last two days, gusts of upwards of 20 to 25 miles an hour are forecast for later in the day," said Hawai‘i Island Branch Chief Steve Bergfeld of the DLNR's Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
DLNR officials said the fire actually began several weeks ago and smoldered until strong winds fanned the flames this week.
The area is dominated by shrubs and grasslands that have been dried by persistent drought.
“This fire is very significant and it is taking this entire team of first responders to collectively contain its advances,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Cronin, commander of the U.S. Army Garrison Pohakuloa Training Area, in a statement.
Strong winds have been recorded across the area, some in excess of 30 mph.
“The weather conditions are making this fight difficult to slow the advance of the fire, and our combined efforts are working to prevent it from reaching or crossing Highway 190," Cronin said.
The fire has largely moved onto Pohakuloa Training Area land after burning across state land — the Pu‘u Anahula Game Management Area.
A fast-moving, wind whipped wildfire on Hawai‘i Island has federal, state, and county firefighters preparing for a prolonged, intense firefight. Called the Leilani fire, Wednesday night it grew from an estimated 700-acres in size to 9,800 acres this afternoon. pic.twitter.com/DzFoxdNz7W— DLNR (@dlnr) August 12, 2022
Waikōloa Village, a town of about 7,000 people on the other side of Highway 190, was evacuated last year when the state's largest-ever wildfire burned more than 70 square miles.
Linda Hunt, who works at a horse stable in Waikōloa Village, said she can see the flames from her farm but that winds are currently pushing the fire away from her community.
“We’re about 10, 15 miles down the hill," she said. "The way the wind is blowing, it’s going to keep blowing towards Kona. Unless we get a change of wind, that’s the only way we’d be affected."
Federal, state and local firefighters are trying to contain the blaze. Crews are using bulldozers to create a fire break and several helicopters from various agencies are dropping water on the fire.
The DLNR released video of the blaze Thursday.
A spokesperson for the Army told The Associated Press that while there is active military training in the area, the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
“There are units up there training, I can't confirm or deny if live fire was taking place,” said Michael O. Donnelly, chief of external communications for the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaiʻi. “It's business as usual, but the exact cause we don't know.”
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for fire conditions in the region through Thursday night.
Huge wildfires like the one in Hawaiʻi highlight the dangers of climate change-related heat and drought for many communities throughout the U.S. West and other hotspots around the world.
But experts say relatively small fires on typically wet, tropical islands in the Pacific are also on the rise, creating a cycle of ecological damage that affects vital and limited resources for millions of residents.