The National Interagency Fire Center is predicting that Hawaii will be especially vulnerable to wildland fire this winter as drought appears to be setting in under developing El Nino weather conditions.
In addition, a new study from a University
of Hawaii-Manoa researcher indicates that the islands will be at increasing risk of wildfire due to climate change.
The study, which focused on Hawaii island, found the annual risk of wildfire increasing as much as 375 percent for parts
of the island over the next several decades.
As for current conditions across the islands, the latest U.S. Drought Monitor data show abnormally dry conditions reaching out to more than 41 percent of the state, mostly leeward
locations and including all of Lanai and
On the Big Island, officials with Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park announced Monday the closure of Mauna Loa Road at the gate near the Kipukapuaulu parking area due to “Very High Fire Danger.”
“The strong winds and dry weather over the past week has led to a rapid escalation of fire danger on Mauna Loa, and fire danger indexes have reached critical thresholds at the Mauna Loa weather station,” the park’s fire management officer, Greg Funderburk, said in a
The increasing dryness of the islands comes after two months of drought-free weather
followed by the second-
wettest dry season in the past 30 years, according to the National Weather Service in Honolulu.
What that means for
Hawaii is that “fuel loading” — or the ample growth of grasses, bushes and trees — has boosted the chance of fire activity across the state to “above average,” the National Interangency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said.
Additionally, sea surface temperatures around the
islands are warmer than usual, and air temperatures are expected to be slightly above average through March, according to the
center’s seasonal forecast.
Rainfall was above normal in October but dropped off sharply in November.
“Fuel loading has been above average since last spring, and fire activity was above average during the drier portions of the summer. Therefore, as dry weather continues, significant fire potential will increase to above normal in December and remain there through March and likely
beyond,” the forecast said.
While Hawaii is the only region of the country labeled with above-normal wildland fire potential throughout the winter months, the coastal region of California, from San Francisco to the Mexican border, is tagged similarly through December only.
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center last week raised the chances of El Nino occurring this winter to 90 percent.
For Hawaii, El Nino often translates into summer moisture followed by winter drought.
Drought conditions will be increasingly prevalent in the coming decades, said Clay Trauernicht, UH-Manoa wildland fire specialist and author of a study that examined how climate change will affect wildfires in Hawaii and tropical areas around the world.
The paper, published in Science of the Total Environment, not only discusses the effects of climate change on fire, but demonstrates how tracking rainfall patterns year to year can help better forecast near-term wildfire risk, including the danger that excess rainfall in advance of drought can pose to Hawaii’s vulnerable
As for the current fire
danger, Trauernicht said
environmental conditions are quite similar right now to the period right before August, when a string of storms built up the fuel load and the drying islands were struck by a rash of wildland fires that burned nearly 30,000 acres.
“It’s looking real sketchy going into January and
Changing weather patterns and fire-prone, non-
native grasses that have invaded a quarter of the state in recent decades have put Hawaii’s forests and natural areas at greater risk of fire, experts say.
Both the frequency and size of the wildland fires have increased dramatically over the years, stretching wildland firefighting budgets to their limits and sometimes past.
Elizabeth Pickett, executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, said most people don’t realize the scale of
Hawaii’s wildfire problem. Each year about 0.5 percent of Hawaii’s total land area burns, which is equal to or greater than the proportion burned of any other U.S. state, she said.
Pickett said 98 percent of wildfires are started by humans, most of them accidentally. People have to accept that we live in a fire-prone state and be extra careful to prevent fires, she said.
One common way to start a wildfire is from a spark or hot components of a motor vehicle. It’s the primary reason why Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park closed Mauna Loa Road.
“By reducing the number of vehicles in high-risk areas, the park can mitigate the potential for a catastrophic event,” the park said.
Pickett said there are a number of simple things folks can do: Park cars on pavement and never on
dry grass. Keep yards maintained and free of debris. Be careful with equipment that could spark. Practice family emergency plans.
More tips can be found at HawaiiWildfire.org/lookout.
“Prevention is the most important thing we can all do,” Pickett said. “Firefighting is really just a last