Rapid ohia death kills Hamakua tree

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State and federal researchers confirmed that a giant ohia tree near Laupahoehoe was killed by rapid ohia death, marking the first known case of the plant disease in Hamakua.

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State and federal researchers confirmed that a giant ohia tree near Laupahoehoe was killed by rapid ohia death, marking the first known case of the plant disease in Hamakua.

The native tree species is an important part of the island’s ecosystem and is prized culturally for its flowers, which are used in lei making.

The dead tree stands between 100 and 130 feet tall and is located in the Laupahoehoe section of the Hilo Forest Reserve, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. It’s estimated to be several hundred years old.

“It’s really devastating to look at the forest and see the damage that rapid ohia death is doing to our ecosystem and our watersheds,” said Steve Bergfeld, DLNR’s Hawaii Island branch manager, in a video the department distributed. “These trees have been here for hundreds of years, and to see them go down to a disease like this is really heartbreaking.”

The disease was first spotted in Puna in 2010 and now infects nearly 50,000 acres, according to the DLNR.

JB Friday, a University of Hawaii forester, said the fungal disease is often transmitted by wind, which is why it spread from Puna to Ka‘u and up through Kona first.

“It was going down wind and now it jumped into Laupahoehoe, which is really concerning because that’s the biggest and best ohia forest,” he said.

It’s not yet known if other trees in the area are infected.

Friday said DLNR and other agencies will be conducting more surveys in the forest.

He said the infected tree might be cut down and then covered by tarps to prevent beetles from getting inside and aiding the spread of fungal spores.

“We’re not sure how it got infected,” Friday said. “All the possibilities are open right now.”

To help reduce the spread, he said it’s important for people to wash their vehicles before going into forests and not moving logs.

State and federal researchers teamed up to try to combat the disease.

Friday said researchers are trying to find ohia trees that might be naturally resistant and could be used to repropagate forests.

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For more information, visit rapidohiadeath.org.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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