Extreme fire hazards have returned to the islands of Hawaii just months after a fire weather event unfolded on August 8 on the islands of Maui and Hawaii, destroying thousands of acres of land, more than 2,000 structures, and claiming more than 95 lives. Atmospheric conditions are ripe to create fire weather conditions into Monday although winds aren’t forecast to be as severe as they were during the August 8 event. Since the catastrophic August fires, drought conditions have worsened across the Aloha State. Wildfires continue to burn on the island of Oahu today.
According to the National Weather Service, “fire weather” is the use of meteorological parameters such as relative humidity, wind speed and direction, mixing heights, and soil moisture to determine whether conditions are favorable for fire growth and smoke dispersion. Based on the analysis by meteorologists at the Honolulu office of the National Weather Service, a Fire Weather Watch, indicating the possibility of fire weather risks, have been issued for for large parts of each island, especially the western/leeward side areas which could be influenced the most by downslope flows.
“A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity levels, and dry fuels will contribute to extreme fire behavior,” the Honolulu office of the National Weather Service wrote in a Red Flag Warning bulletin today.” Any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly and be very difficult to control they added.
Winds could gust to or over 50 mph at times through Monday across large parts of the state.
The Red Flag Warning is in effect for portions of both Maui and Hawaii that saw destructive fires on August 8, as well as leeward portions of Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, and Lanai. The warning is in effect through 6 pm Monday local time (11 pm ET.)
“With drought conditions in place statewide, we’re one bad spark away from a new wildfire, so we and our partners are on alert,” said HI-EMA Administrator James Barros. “The first responders and the counties are the front line of defense and we’re here to support them if they need it.”
HI-EMA is short for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which is working in partnership with emergency managers across the state as wildfire threats increase.
All four counties and the State Emergency Operations Center have been partially activated since Sunday morning to monitor conditions and provide mutual support as needed.
Governor Josh Green, M.D., met Sunday morning with representatives of HI-EMA, the county emergency management agencies, the National Weather Service, the Hawai‘i National Guard and other key partners. Such a coordination call is standard practice before any serious hazard to discuss resource deployment and any pre-impact needs.
HI-EMA was already coordinating additional military fire-suppression aircraft that have been helping the City and County of Honolulu with fighting the Kīpapa Ballroom Fire in steep, difficult to access terrain above Mililani. Honolulu reported Sunday that fire had been 85% contained and posed no hazard to communities, but that contingency plans are in place if higher winds increase the threat.
Yesterday, Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth warned residents of the Big Island to prepare for wildfire threats and to take actions to prevent fires from starting in the first place.
“We’re asking our residents to protect each other by being cautious and remaining mindful in their actions,” Mayor Roth said. “We’ve seen these conditions lead to multiple fires along our leeward coast in the past, and we want to ensure we do all we can to prevent them to the best of our ability. These fires can potentially put our firefighters and communities at large in harm’s way. By remaining mindful and refraining from potentially risky behaviors, we can significantly reduce the chances of large brushfires this time around.”
Due to the threat of fire on the Big Island, the Mayor has prohibited all outdoor burning, the use of any open flame outdoors for cooking, welding, and the grinding of metal, and prohibited all parking on dry grass areas after travel through 6 am on Tuesday.
On Maui, where August fires were both destructive and deadly, the Maui Fire Department released tips to people there to reduce the risk of additional fires:
- Refrain from ALL outdoor burning, including cooking
- Avoid the use of mechanized equipment outdoors, including the use of yardwork equipment
- Do not drive your vehicle in dry, tall grass. The underside of your vehicle is hot and can easily ignite grasses from your exhaust muffler
- Ensure trailer chains do not drag on the ground
- Be aware of wind direction and gusts that could spread fire rapidly
- Have an escape route to a clear area safe from rapid-fire spread
According to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, about 0.5% of Hawaii’s total land area burns each year, equal to or greater than the proportion burned of any other US state. Over 98% of wildfires are human caused. Human ignitions coupled with an increasing amount of nonnative, fire-prone grasses and shrubs has made the threat of wildfire worse.
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) November 6, 2023
Hawaii is under the influence of a weather pattern tied to El Nino, in which the atmospheric pattern creates unusually dry conditions over the summer and especially the autumn months there. Worsening drought conditions are drying-out tens of thousands of acres of flammable, invasive wild grasses that cover the islands, setting the stage for danger whenever fire weather conditions arrive.