Advertisement
Share

They’re tropical paradises. Wildfires are taking a toll on them, too

Firefighter putting out blaze near Waimea, Hawaii
A firefighter puts out a blaze near Waimea, Hawaii, on Aug. 5.
(Caleb Jones / Associated Press)

A metal roof sits atop the burned remains of a homestead on the once-lush slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea — a dormant volcano and the state’s tallest peak. Charred cars and motorcycles lie strewn about as wind-whipped sand and ash blast the scorched landscape.

Generations of Kumu Micah Kamohoalii’s family have lived on these lands reserved for Native Hawaiians, and his cousin owns a house destroyed by the state’s largest-ever wildfire, which is still burning.

“I’ve never seen a fire this big,” Kamohoalii said. “Waimea has had fires, many of them before and some maybe a few hundred acres, but not this size.”

Advertisement

The fire has burned more than 70 square miles in two weeks. It wasn’t the first time this area has burned, and won’t be the last. Like many islands in the Pacific, Hawaii’s dry seasons are getting more extreme with climate change.

“Everyone knows Waimea to be the pasturelands and to be all the green rolling hills. And so when I was young, all of this was always green,” Kamohoalii said. “In the last 10 to 15 years, it has been really, really dry.”

Huge wildfires in the western U.S. have highlighted the dangers of climate-change-related heat and drought. But experts say relatively small fires on typically wet, tropical islands in the Pacific are also on the rise, creating a cycle of ecological damage that affects vital and limited resources for millions of residents.

Already this year, there have been more than twice as many acres burned than during the same period last year — and hundreds more fires.

From Micronesia to Hawaii, wildfires have been a growing problem for decades. With scarce funding to prevent and suppress these fires, island communities have struggled to address the problem.

“On tropical islands, fires have a unique set of impacts,” said Clay Trauernicht, an ecosystems and wildfire researcher at the University of Hawaii. “First and foremost, fires were very rare prior to human arrival on any Pacific island. The vegetation, the native ecosystems, really evolved in the absence of frequent fires. And so when you do get these fires, they tend to kind of wreak havoc.”

But it’s not just burned land that is affected. Fires on islands harm environments from the top of mountains to below the ocean’s surface.

“Once a fire occurs, what you’re doing is removing vegetation,” Trauernicht said. “And we often get heavy rainfall events. All of that exposed soil gets carried downstream and we have these direct impacts of erosion, sedimentation on our marine ecosystems. So it really hammers our coral reefs as well.”

The U.N. says global warming is likely in the next two decades to pass 1.5 degrees Celsius — the ambitious target of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Pacific island reefs support local food production, create barriers to large storm surges and are a critical part of tourism that keeps many islands running.

The wet season on tropical islands also causes fire-adapted grasses to grow tall and thick, building fuel for the next summer’s wildfires.

“Guinea grass grows six inches a day in optimal conditions, and a six-foot-tall patch of grass can throw 20-foot flame lengths,” said Michael Walker, Hawaii’s state fire-protection forester. “So what we have here are really fast-moving, very hot, very dangerous fires.”

Walker said such non-native grasses that have proliferated in Hawaii are adapted to fire, but native species and shrubs are not.

“While [these wildfires] may not compare to the size and duration of what folks have in the western [continental] United States, we burn a significant portion of our lands every year because of these grass fires, and they’re altering our natural ecosystems and converting forests to grass,” he said.

The latest wildfire on Hawaii’s Big Island burned about 1% of the state’s total land. Other islands in the Pacific, such as Palau, Saipan and Guam, burn even more — up to 10% in severe fire years.

On average, Guam has nearly 700 wildfires a year, Palau about 175 and Saipan about 20, according to data from 2018.

Guam, like many other places, has long used fire as a tool. Farmers sometimes use it to clear fields, and hunters have been known to burn areas while poaching.

After President Trump threatened nuclear-armed North Korea with “fire and fury” — and after Kim Jong Un’s hermit kingdom replied with a bombastic warning aimed at a speck of U.S. territory in the vast western Pacific — many Americans got busy Googling “Guam.”

The U.S. territory’s forestry chief, Christine Camacho Fejeran, said fires on the island are mostly caused by arson. “So all of Guam’s wildfires are human-caused issues, whether it’s an intentional or an escaped backyard fire or another [cause],” she said.

On average, Fejeran said, 6,000 to 7,000 acres of the island burn each year, amounting to about 5% of its land.

While no homes have been lost to recent wildfires on Guam, Fejeran believes that good fortune will come to an end unless more is done to combat the fires.

The island has made some changes in fire legislation, management, education and enforcement. Arson has become a chargeable offense, but Fejeran says enforcement remains an obstacle in the tight-knit community.

Pacific Gas & Electric is under rising scrutiny this summer as a series of huge fires across Northern California have raged amid hot, dry conditions.

In Hawaii, last week’s blaze destroyed three homes, but the fire threatened many more.

Mikiala Brand, who has lived for two decades on a 50-acre homestead, watched as flames came within a few hundred yards of her house.

As the fire grew closer, she saw firefighters, neighbors and the National Guard racing into her rural neighborhood to fight it. She had to evacuate her beloved home twice in less than 24 hours.

“Of course it was scary,” she said. “But I had faith that the strong, the brave and the talented, and along with nature and Akua, which is our name for the universal spirit, would take care.”

The dire report from the IPCC doesn’t mean you should give up on reversing climate change. Here’s how you can still make a difference.

While fires are becoming more difficult to fight because of dry and hot conditions associated with climate change, experts say the Pacific islands still can help prevent these blazes from causing ecological damage and property losses.

“Fire presents a pretty interesting component of kind of all these climate change impacts that we’re dealing with in the sense that they are manageable,” said Trauernicht, the University of Hawaii wildfire expert.

In addition to education and arson prevention, he said, land use — such as grazing practices and reforestation that reduce volatile grasses — could help.

“It’s within our control, potentially, to reduce the impacts that we’re seeing with fires,” Trauernicht said, “both in terms of forest loss as well as the impacts on coral reefs.”


Advertisement