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Drought spurs efforts to reduce wildfire risk


Facing the worst drought in the country, firefighters in Hawaii worry that extreme wildfires could destroy native ecosystems and create devastating long-term environmental damage.

In response, the National Park Service has closed several roads and banned campfires in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Officials have also brought wild-land firefighters from the mainland to help reduce fire hazards on Maui and the Big Island, which are suffering the worst effects of Hawaii’s drought.

So far this year, the number of wildfires has not increased significantly, but the risk remains severe.

To date there have been 24 "red-flag" warning days — when dryness is conducive to fast-moving wildfires — compared with about 17 last year.

And the tinderbox conditions are expected to continue this fall, the National Weather Service said.

One of the dangers during a drought is a fire that burns just as fast into the wind as ahead of the wind because the fuels are so dry, said Stacy Rogers, a Honolulu Community College professor who heads the college’s Fire and Environmental Emergency Response program.

ANOTHER danger from wildfires is the spread of exotic or non-native species, which often move in after native plants are destroyed. The new plants are often more prone to fires, Rogers said.

"Once you have a fire, you potentially change that ecosystem forever, especially with those types of species," he said.

Finally, barren land caused by wildfires becomes prone to flooding or erosion, which can choke streams and damage coral reefs, Rogers said.

At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, spokeswoman Mardie Lane said some rehabilitated native plant ecosystems have taken decades to grow and have lately become so dry they are a fire hazard.

To reduce the risk, park officials closed an 11-mile stretch along Moana Loa Road, a 5-mile portion of Hilina Pali Road and a small administrative area called Ainahou.

Lane said the closed roads are narrow, single lanes on which vehicles have to pull over for oncoming vehicles. The concern is that a stopped car’s muffler could ignite the dry grass.

"We just can’t risk it," Lane said. "We’ve never seen it so dry."

Joe Molhoek, fire manager for the National Park Service in Hawaii, said some areas in the national park have remained at the worst level — extreme danger — for about four months. Typically, they reach that level only about 18 days a year.

He added that about 70 percent of the 340,000 or so acres of the Big Island’s national parks are profoundly dry.

"We’re extremely concerned," he said. "The fortunate part is there’s not a whole lot of ignition sources."

Since March, Molhoek has brought federal firefighters from the mainland to reduce fire threats and inform the public about fire hazards at the parks.

The Park Service needs extra help because it has only about six regular firefighters. If more help or equipment from the mainland is ever needed, it could take two days to arrive.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu Fire Department has reached out to landowners, asking that they take preventive measures to reduce the spread of wildfires, such as keeping areas clear or creating firebreaks, said Honolulu fire Capt. Terry Seelig. The department also has asked landowners to provide access to potential water sources, such as streams.

Seelig said it was difficult to tell what effect the drought has had on wildfires because the numbers vary every year.

But any brush fire, even one that does not threaten property, draws firefighters away from other emergencies, such as medical problems and rescues, he said.

Maui Assistant Chief David Thyne said the dry conditions have brought the Maui Fire Department into contact with several community groups, such as one working to protect the watershed in East Maui.

The watershed group is concerned that a wildfire would burn the vegetation, ruining the land’s ability to collect water and damaging the aquifer. The Fire Department is also working with those concerned about native plants and cultural practitioners because the drought is spreading into places with iwi and cultural relics, he said.

"We’ve had a lot of connections this past year because of the increased threat," he said.

Yosemite firefighters have helped Maui firefighters reduce fire hazards at Haleakala National Park, cutting brush back from roadways and reporting abandoned cars, which are a target of arson.

Thyne said the specialists reported the relative humidity in the vegetation was 9 percent, "which is just very, very low."

The National Weather Service has predicted below-normal rainfall into October. La Nina conditions, which bring cooler winds, should bring above-normal rainfall in the winter months.

Blazing acres

Number of wildfires on Oahu in recent years and through Aug. 15 this year.

Year Wildfires Burned
2005 962 9,684
2006 584 1,020
2007 635 8,985
2008 388 445
2009 517 1,853
2010 369 728
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