Record wildfire burns amid drought on Hawaii’s Big Island

HONOLULU — Firefighters gained more control over a wildfire in Hawaii that forced thousands of people to evacuate over the weekend and destroyed at least two homes on the Big Island, but officials warned that strong winds will return on Tuesday, raising the danger again.

Authorities have lifted evacuation orders but warned they could be reinstated at any time and that people should be ready to go.

“It’s the biggest (fire) we’ve ever had on this island,” Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said of the more than 62-square-mile (160-square-kilometer) blaze. “With the drought conditions that we’ve had, it is of concern. You see something like this where you’re putting thousands of homes in danger, it’s very concerning.”

Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the US West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires.

Even though Hawaii has a wet, tropical climate that isn’t typically at risk from large fires, blazes could become more frequent as climate change-related weather patterns intensify.

The islands have seen a downward trend in overall rainfall in recent years. Drought conditions have reached the most severe level in some parts of Hawaii in recent years, according to the US Drought Monitor. Drought that is tied to climate change has made wildfires harder to fight.

Vehicles turn onto Queen Kaahumanu Highway from an emergency access route opened after residents and visitors lodging in the Waikoloa Village area of Hawaii were ordered to evacuate as a wildfire threatened the South Kohala town Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021.
Vehicles turn onto Queen Kaahumanu Highway from an emergency access route opened after residents and visitors lodging in the Waikoloa Village area of Hawaii were ordered to evacuate as a wildfire threatened the South Kohala town Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021.
Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today via AP

Two homes were confirmed destroyed in the Hawaii fire. One homeowner said he tried to protect his property but lost the battle as the wind picked up.

“I had a dozer on my lawn, my land and I tried to make a fire break,” Joshua Kihe of the community of Waimea told Hawaii News Now. He said the fire destroyed his home.

“I definitely need to think of a plan because it’s a life-changer,” he said.

Others scrambled to evacuate.

“I just seen the flames coming,” Waimea resident Kanani Malakaua said. “I mainly got my important papers, made sure my kids were in the car, got my animals — but this is a very, very scary time for us.”

Some nearby roads were closed, making certain neighborhoods inaccessible, but there was no imminent threat to those houses.

According to the National Weather Service, strong winds and generally dry conditions will continue throughout the islands on Tuesday and ease only slightly on Wednesday.

“Our current wind forecast is showing wind patterns between 18 to 20 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph,” Hawaii County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd said Sunday night. “and so while throughout the evening our crews will be working to build fire breaks with dozers and back burns, this temporary lift on the mandatory evacuation may have to be reinforced later on due to prevailing weather patterns.”

The fire chief said nearby communities could be inundated with smoke and that anyone with health or breathing problems should find somewhere else to stay.

Roth, the Big Island mayor, said the way the wind comes through the area makes it difficult to fight the flames and that officials and residents must stay vigilant.

“The winds kind of swirl, so they’ll be coming at one direction for a couple of minutes and then all of a sudden, they’re blowing in a different direction; that makes it really very difficult to fight a fire when you have swirling winds,” Roth said.

Several wildfires also were burning in drought-stricken California and Oregon.

Containment on Monday reached 35 percent for California’s largest, the Dixie Fire, which covered about 388 square miles in mountains where 45 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

A mandatory evacuation order was issued Monday for Greenville, a town of about 1,000 people, as gusts pushed flames through Plumas and Butte counties in Northern California.

Other evacuation orders and warnings were lifted over the weekend for several areas in Northern California but an estimated 3,000 homes remained threatened by the Dixie Fire as winds pushed flames through dry fuels on remote hillsides.

Over the weekend, a lightning-sparked wildfire threatened remote homes along the Trinity River in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The 5-square-mile McFarland Fire was 5 percent contained Monday.

In southern Oregon, lightning struck parched forests hundreds of times in 24 hours, igniting some 50 new wildfires as the nation’s largest blaze burned less than 100 miles (161 kilometers) away, officials said Monday.

Firefighters and aircraft pounced on the new fires before they could spread out of control. No homes were immediately threatened.

The Bootleg Fire, the nation’s largest at 647 square miles, was 84 percent contained Monday, though it isn’t expected to be fully under control until Oct. 1.

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