Conditions ripe in Hawaii for another fire disaster

2023 October 22 CTY - Honolulu Star-Advertiser photo by George F. Lee / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM Dry grass, brush and bush along Honoapiillani Highway near Kapalua, Maui on Sunday, Oct. 22.

Less than a year after a massive wildfire ravaged Lahaina with shocking lethal ferocity, a federal agency is predicting that Hawaii over the next few months will face similar conditions that could lead to more wildfires.

In its latest seasonal outlook, the National Interagency Fire Center says the lee sides of the islands will experience “above average significant potential” for wildfires this month through at least August.

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The warning comes as the public in Hawaii is being asked to prepare their homes and properties for the upcoming fire season.

Honolulu Fire Department Battalion Chief J.C. Bisch told reporters last week that Hawaii is expected to see a summer hotter and drier than normal — along with a greater threat of wildfires.

“It’s imperative that each and every one of us take proactive measures to safeguard our homes and protect our families and our communities,” Bisch said.

Less than 5% of the country’s landmass was designated as having “above average significant wildfire potential” by the National Interagency Fire Center, a Boise, Idaho, office staffed by nine federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service, that provides wildland fire support and planning to its member agencies.

The National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook is a tool for wildland fire managers, providing an assessment of current weather and landscape conditions and how these will evolve in the next four months.

Other areas of the U.S. facing similar vulnerable conditions in May and beyond include Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida.

For Hawaii, El Nino conditions are expected to transition to La Nina during the heart of the dry season, according to the center. During the transition, rainfall is expected to be below normal and to worsen drought conditions.

Vegetation and grasses will become stressed and more flammable with each passing month, the center’s outlook says.

The forecast notes that vegetation growth occurred on Kauai and Oahu as a result of a mid-April rain event, but drying conditions will allow curing to take its toll, especially during July and August.

“La Nina tends to promote periods of enhanced trade winds and should serve as a catalyst for large fire growth,” the outlook says. “Enhancing drought, stressed live fuels and intermittent gusty-dry wind events provides the ingre­dients for above normal significant fire potential across all of the lee-side areas during the heart of the dry season.”

Experts say both the frequency and size of wildfires have steadily grown in recent decades as changing weather patterns and invading fire-prone, non-native grasses and shrubs have put Hawaii’s forests, natural areas and communities at greater risk of fire.

The risk of wildfire in Hawaii — now on par with notorious fire-prone Western states like California — is greater than 92% of states in the U.S., according to a U.S. Forest Service website called wildfirerisk.org.

In an interview, Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, said awareness about wildfire prevention in Hawaii has never been higher following August’s wildfires.

The risk of wildfire is top of mind for some vulnerable communities. In Waimea the topic of the community association’s recent meeting was emergency preparedness and lessons learned from the August wildfires and other emergencies. There was a full house at the New Community Center.