State Braces For Active Wildfire Season in Hawaii

May 16, 2016

Credit Molly Solomon

Little rainfall and an ongoing drought suggests that Hawai‘i is in for a hot, dry summer. It’s also stoking concerns that the islands will experience a busy fire season.

Back in March, Joseph Momoa was heading home to Nānākuli. As soon as he stepped out of his truck, he knew something was wrong: he could smell it.

“When I turned around and faced the mountain, there was a cloud of smoke coming over the top,” said Momoa.”I knew the wind was coming around this area and sweeping over to my side. I was thinking this fire’s going to be here in about five minutes.”

That fire got within a hundred yards of Momoa’s backyard. Luckily he and his neighbors escaped any damage, but they’re reminded of it every time they drive into the valley. Dark patches cover swaths of the ridgeline where kiawe and native forest once grew. Captain David Jenkins from the Honolulu Fire Department points to the burnt areas you can still see from the highway.

“This is just a small segment of the brush fire,” said Jenkins. “Once you get into that area you’ll see the scope of how large this brush fire actually went.”

Jenkins says it scorched more than 2,500 acres of land and took nearly 100 state and county firefighters to put it out. But it’s not just Nanakuli that’s at risk. “From Hawai‘i Kai to the Leeward side, from Waialua to Kahuku​—throughout the whole island the potential for wild land fires is there."

And it’s not just O‘ahu. So far this year, 10,865 acres have burned statewide -- that’s twice as much as all of 2015. Dry conditions are typical after El Nino events in Hawaii, and this past one was one of the strongest on record. Rob Hauff is the state protection forester with the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“If you go back through the data there definitely is occurrence of much larger fires during El Niño years, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen this year,” said Hauff. “We don’t expect that the drought conditions are going to be alleviated by rainfall anytime soon. This will likely go through October, maybe November.”

With an above-average fire season ahead, state officials stress a need for public awareness. Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization is a nonprofit that’s working with federal, state and local agencies to kick start a campaign to provide information and tips for homeowners. More information can be found on their website, hawaiiwildfire.org.