Statewide Wildfire & Drought Lookout! campaign launches on Big Island with dry summer forecast
Don’t let the winter’s heavy rains fool you into thinking Hawai‘i won’t experience devastating wildfires anytime soon.
As part of the annual statewide Wildfire & Drought Lookout! campaign, forecasters warned that the islands will begin experiencing drought conditions late this summer, which could extend through next winter.
“While everything is green and lush right now, we are expecting below-average rainfall, as we enter the dry season in Hawai‘i,” said Derek Wroe of the National Weather Service.
The long-range modeling shows that the normally wet winter will be abnormally dry for 2023-24, Wroe said during a news conference Wednesday at the Hawai‘i County Civil Defense Agency in Hilo.
This means all the green vegetation that is now more abundant will have a longer period to dry out — providing more potential fuel for wildland fires.
Mike Walker, state protection forester for the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said wildfire season in Hawai‘i has become a year-round phenomenon due to warming climate conditions.
“Much of Hawai‘i’s landscape, particularly in fire-prone areas, is dominated by invasive fountain grass,” he said. “It is fire adapted and is flammable throughout the year and even more so during drought periods. Dry fountain grass has helped fuel most large wildfires on Hawai‘i island.
The Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization coordinates the Wildfire & Drought Lookout! campaign, which began in 2016 and is a collaborative effort of nearly every fire prevention and response agency in the state.
This was the first time since the kick-off news conference was outside of O‘ahu. Hawai‘i Island was selected because it has experienced the largest wildfires in recent years. Both the 40,000-acre Mana Road fire in 2021 and last year’s 17,000-acre Leilani fire were fueled by invasive grasses.
These are some of the fire prevention and mitigation initiatives announced by partner agencies.
Hawai‘i County Civil Defense Agency: Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno leads the Big Island Wildfire Coordinating Group, which is readying the roll out of predefined, evacuation preparedness threat levels, patterned on National Weather Service weather warnings.
“The beginning of this whole process started with trying to outreach with the various fire agencies to accomplish getting better communications with communities,” Magno said. “It was apparent that fire matches other natural disasters as far as advisories, watches and warnings. We’ve come up with a color-coded scale to match each level.”
Language for each evacuation level is still being finalized but expected to be ready this summer.
Hawai‘i Fire Department: Assistant Chief Darwin Okinaka is a driving force behind the Wildfire Home Risk Assessor Program, which is now available for homeowners in any of the current 16 Firewise USA communities in Hawai‘i. The free service brings trained wildfire risk assessors to people’s home.
During a recent assessment at a home in Waimea, Okinaka told the homeowner: “We’re not going to be able to save every home threatened by a wildfire. But, if you prepare your home and minimize hazards and fire risks, you’re protecting yourself. That’s one less thing that firefighters would have to do. You’re essentially helping yourself, helping us to help you, and keeping your home and livelihood safe.”
Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization: To complement the statewide Firewise USA program, Hawai’i Wildfire Management Organization and the Hawai‘i County Fire Department are partnering to pilot a large landowners wildfire working group.
“This will allow for peer learning and help build capacity for wildfire planning and mitigation on large land tracts,” said Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the management organization.
It will connect large landowners and land managers to find grant opportunities to assist with fuel-reduction projects. The organization also has a wealth of resources available for landowners and homeowners to help them become more fire wise.
All the Hawai‘i Island initiatives and programs are available to share statewide. Hawai‘i’s wildfire issue is caused by both fuels and human ignitions. The message is that both need to be reduced and managed in both residential areas and on undeveloped/wildland areas.