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Preparing for wildfires ahead of a predicted dry summer across Hawaiʻi

A Big Island firefighter puts out a blaze near Waimea, Hawaiʻi, on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. The area was scorched by the state's largest-ever wildfire. Experts say wildfires in the Pacific islands are becoming larger and more common as drought conditions increase along with climate change. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)
Caleb Jones/AP
A Big Island firefighter puts out a blaze near Waimea, Hawaiʻi, on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

Hawaiʻi is just one week into summer, but drought conditions across the state could be setting us up for a long, hot summer of wildfires.

The Hawaiʻi Wildfire Management Organization kicked off a campaign this month to raise awareness about the growing vulnerability to wildfires.

Co-Executive Director Elizabeth Pickett says 98% of Hawaiʻi’s wildfires are caused by humans. She says residents need to get serious about fire prevention as the drought continues.

"The biggest piece of the campaign, and the big piece that we want people to know about, is that fire can only travel where there is fuel, and that includes dried leaf debris in your rain gutters, your yards around your house," she said.

"Most wildfires don't impact communities just from the outside. They send off lots of embers and those can land in your leaf piles and land all around your house, in your yard, in your community," Pickett told The Conversation.

Pickett says it is up to everybody to make sure vegetation is taken care of and maintained.

"Also we have to make sure we’re not starting fires on accident," she added.

Campfires, fireworks, equipment and vehicles are the top culprits for accidental fires. Even the heat of an engine idling above dry grass can be enough to ignite a fire.

Firefighters from the Department of Land and Natural Resources worked late last week to contain a wildfire in the Kuaokalā Forest Reserve on Oʻahu. It was likely started by an unattended campfire.

Kevin Kodama, a hydrologist at the Honolulu Weather Forecast Office, says Hawaiʻi is looking at drier than average rainfall with a potential third year of La Niña conditions.

"That would mark only the third time in the last 50 years that we've had three La Niña years in a row. So with the forecast of below-average rainfall expected for the summer for the dry season, you can look for the existing drought areas that we already have in place to intensify and expand even further," Kodama said.

Kodama said the winter wet season was the 12th driest in the last 30 years and that without a major storm that dumped most of the season's rain in just a couple weeks, it would have been worse.

He said that going into the summer dry season, Hawaiʻi is expected to remain in severe to extreme drought conditions. Kauaʻi may be an outlier. It has the least amount of drought conditions and may see drier weather later in the summer.

You can find more fire prevention tips at hawaiiwildfire.org. This interview aired on The Conversation on June 6, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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