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NWS Issues Red Flag Warning For Leeward Sections of All Islands

August 31, 2020, 11:30 AM HST
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Leeward portions of all Hawaiian Islands are under a Red Flag Warning through 6 p.m. Monday.

The National Weather Service’s issuance of a Red Flag Warning means critical wildfire conditions are either occurring now or will shortly.

“Provided the lack of any significant rainfall through the summer months, fuels have become very dry across portions of the state,” the warning stated. “These dry conditions, combined with breezy trades and relative humidity dipping below 45% through the afternoon hours, will support extreme fire behavior today.”

The fall months of September and October are typically the most prone to wildfire starts in Hawai‘i. A wildfire on Maui over the weekend has already consumed 1,500 acres.

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“However, there are no longer typical fire seasons in the islands, as in recent years we’ve seen wildfires break out in every month of the year,” said Michael Walker, State Protection Forester for the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Experts believe this is largely a result of global climate change.

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This year, heading into the fall and adding prolonged drought in certain locations around the state to the equation, fire managers, forecasters, and firefighters are on high alert.

“Vegetation conditions have really become dry over portions of the state during August, especially in the leeward areas of Maui County where severe drought has been quite persistent,” said Kevin Kodama, the Senior Service Hydrologist with the NWS Forecast Office in Honolulu/ “Furthermore, based on our climate guidance, it’s looking like we may have a late start to our October through April wet season and significant relief may not show up until November.”

A week ago, the US Drought Monitor rated west Maui as being in “severe drought.” Other areas of Maui, Hawai‘i Island, and O‘ahu are experiencing abnormally dry conditions to moderate drought conditions. Kaua‘i is not experiencing drought except for a very small portion of the southwest quadrant of the island. On other islands, the only areas not experiencing some level of drought as of Aug. 25, include the windward side of O‘ahu and the leeward side of Hawai‘i island.

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A year ago, about 41% of the state was not experiencing drought. As of now, that percentage has dropped to around 32% as drought-free. The authors of the drought monitor estimate that nearly 280,000 Hawai‘i residents live in currently rated drought areas.

“Given the red flag warning now covering leeward areas, we can expect the percentages of area under drought conditions to increase in the next monitoring report,” said Neal Fujii, a hydrologist with the State Commission on Water Resources Management.

In more normal times, fire management partners across the state, stage a “Wildfire & Drought LOOKOUT!” campaign to increase people’s awareness of the connection between drought and wildfires.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is. of course. capturing everyone’s attention as it should, but we do hope people will be aware over the next few months that their actions can lead to wildfires, that can threaten homes, property, forests, and lives,” said DLNR Senior Communications Manager Dan Dennison who, in collaboration with others, initiated the annual wildfire awareness campaign five years ago.

“We’ve already experienced several large fires on O‘ahu and Maui, and high-risk conditions will persist, especially in leeward areas, until we get significant rainfall,” explained Dr. Clay Trauernicht, Associate Specialist in Ecosystem Fire with the University of Hawaiʻi Cooperative Extension Service.

Part of the annual Wildfire & Drought Lookout campaign is to provide common-sense tips and guidance for everyone to follow to prevent wildfires. Among the actions HWMO and other fire management agencies recommend:

  • Do not park on dry grass
  • Do not use equipment that sparks, especially on a dry day
  • Keep grass cut short and trees trimmed high
  • Clean leaf piles in the yard, in rain gutters and around structures

Roughly 95% of wildland fires are caused by people, albeit usually accidentally. Barretto also recommends a family emergency plan if you live in a drought or fire-prone area.

“Be sure to include neighbors or loved ones who may not be able to escape a fire,” Barretto said. “We also encourage people to get involved in community efforts to reduce wildfire hazards.”

She points to the Firewise USA program, which is a national and state program that mobilizes communities to act. The National Fire Protection Association and HWMO have recognized 15 communities around the state as Firewise USA sites. Across the country, 1,500 communities in 42 states have achieved recognition.

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