STUDY: Climate Change Will Cause Higher Risk of Hawai’i Island Wildfires

December 14, 2018, 3:00 PM HST (Updated December 14, 2018, 3:00 PM)
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The first study to link climate change to an increased probability of wildfires in Hawai‘i also weighs the increased risks facing tropical regions around the world.

Lead researcher Clay Trauernicht, PhD, a specialist in wildland fire at the University of Hawai‘i, tracked the “footprints” of historical fires on Hawai‘i Island. His work shows how vegetation, ignition frequency, and climate contribute to wildfire probability.

The increased risk of fire, Dr. Trauernicht points out, stems from drought conditions due to low rainfall, as well as increased rainfall in the months prior to drought. This is because wet conditions mean greater growth of non-native grasses, which are the greatest fuel for wildfires in Hawai‘i. Wet summer weather combined with dry winter conditions is characteristic of El Niño conditions, and he warns this winter looks likely to be another El Niño.

A Troubling Outlook

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Based on changes in rainfall and temperature due to climate change, the annual risk of wildfire could increase up to 375% for parts of Hawai‘i Island, the analysis shows. Most of this change would happen within the next several decades.

“Conditions for fire are likely to worsen significantly by mid-century,” said Dr. Trauernicht, who works in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “The analysis also confirms patterns we’re already seeing in Hawai‘i. High rainfall in the 2017-18 winter, followed by late-summer drought, contributed to nearly 30,000 acres burning across the state this August.”

Read the full article from the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

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