Hawaii’s Fire Risk Landscape: Transformation and Impact
Floods and mudslides driven by hurricanes, encroaching lava in residential areas, persistent and sudden droughts, seismic activity, and now, devastating fires consuming historic neighborhoods.
Hawaii is facing an escalating series of disasters, with wildfires emerging as the most intensifying threat, according to an analysis by the Associated Press based on Federal Emergency Management Agency records. This reality starkly contrasts with the idyllic image of Hawaii as a paradise. In truth, it stands as one of the most vulnerable states in the nation.
Debarati Guha-Sapir, director of the international disasters database at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, emphasized that Hawaii is susceptible to a wide array of climate and geological calamities, encompassing storms, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.
Hawaii has faced heightened jeopardy in recent times. In this very month, the federal administration has declared six distinct fire-related disasters in Hawaii—equivalent to the total count recorded in the state between 1953 and 2003.
Throughout the United States, the expanse of land ravaged by wildfires has surged to nearly three times its size since the 1980s, a shift attributed partly to the arid conditions resulting from global warming. This insight stems from both the National Climate Assessment and the National Interagency Fire Center. In Hawaii, the area devastated by fires has expanded more than fivefold since the 1980s, as indicated by data from the University of Hawaii Manoa.
Between 1953 and 2003, Hawaii maintained an average of one federally declared disaster of any nature every other year, as per the examination of FEMA records. Yet presently, the average has surged to over two per year, marking an approximate four-fold escalation as revealed by the data analysis.
The situation is even direr when it comes to wildfires. Hawaii’s frequency of experiencing federally declared fire-related disasters has transformed from occurring roughly every nine years to an average of one per year since 2004.
As Micah Kamohoali’i, a Native Hawaiian, observed the wildfires on Maui, his thoughts drifted back to 2021, a year in which the most extensive wildfire in the state’s history engulfed his family’s residence on the Big Island and ravaged a vast expanse of land on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
Linda Hunt, employed at a horse stable in Waikoloa Village on the Big Island, underwent evacuation during the 2021 fire. Considering the proliferation of dry grass on the islands due to prolonged drought and worsening fire incidents, Hunt asserted that fire agencies should significantly increase their investment in fire equipment and personnel.
“They are operating with limited resources. On Maui, they even ran out of water and had to abandon the truck,” she highlighted. “Funds should be allocated for proactive measures and readiness.”
FEMA evaluates a comprehensive risk index for each county across the United States, and in the case of Maui County, this risk index surpasses that of nearly 88% of counties nationwide. This assessment by the federal disaster agency categorizes the risk level as “relatively moderate.”
A state emergency management report from 2022 identified several high-risk factors for the population, including tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, health-related hazards, and cyber threats. Surprisingly, this report categorized wildfire alongside drought, climate change, and sea-level rise as “low” risks.
However, despite this classification, it is important to note that fire holds the primary position as the cause behind Hawaii’s federally declared disasters, surpassing the combined total of the subsequent three types of disasters: floods, severe storms, and hurricanes. Remarkably, Hawaii boasts the highest count of federally declared fire-related disasters per square mile compared to any other state.
Throughout much of the 20th century, Hawaii’s annual burned acreage averaged around 5,000 acres. Presently, this figure has surged to between 15,000 and 20,000 acres, as highlighted by Clay Trauernicht, a fire scientist at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
“We’ve observed these substantial incidents over the past two to three decades,” he noted from Oahu.
The predominant cause of this transformation is primarily linked to alterations in land use patterns and the types of vegetation susceptible to ignition, explained University of Hawaii’s Trauernicht. Starting from the 1990s, there has been a notable decrease in plantation agriculture and ranching, resulting in the replacement of millions of acres of crops with highly flammable and rapidly burning grasslands.
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