Fires, vog blanket Big Island in haze, with little relief in sight
By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer
Air pollution from nearly a month of brushfires has combined with heavy vog to cloak the Big Island in air of such poor quality that the state Health Department is advising residents to take precautions.
Aggravating the problem are a lack of trade winds, and drought conditions that have provided plenty of dry fuel for brushfires. There have been three in the past few weeks in the same vicinity, the first that began before Christmas and the last that has been burning for 13 days near Kealakekua.
The result has been haze so thick that it can be seen 30 miles away, and air quality that has exceeded acceptable standards on two days this year and caused breathing problems for those with respiratory ailments. The most affected area is the entire southern portion of the island, on both the Hilo and Kona sides.
"The smoke is really bad now," Karla Sachi, a Hōnaunau artist who lives above Kealakekua Bay, said yesterday. "The middle of the night and early morning it's so strong I think there's a fireplace lit in the middle of my house."
The fire department hopes to get the upper hand on the Kealakekua fire today with the help of federal and state forestry manpower and equipment.
Either way, though, help from Mother Nature is not expected anytime soon.
The fire, which is off Koa Road in a remote area of forest reserve about seven miles from any homes, has consumed more than 1,800 acres. Firefighters had a handle on the fire, but on Monday the fire jumped a fire break, said Big Island Fire Chief Darryl Oliveira.
The fire began to blaze anew, diminishing air quality and stretching county firefighting resources.
Because of the remote location and steep terrain, it was difficult for firefighters to get to the fire, Oliveira said. Using bulldozers, firefighters have now cleared paths for four-wheel drives.
"Access has been the biggest challenge for us," he said yesterday. "Now we can get to the fire."
In the meantime, state health officials advise residents to stay indoors, check their air purifier filters and take their medication if they're having trouble breathing.
"The fine particulates — the stuff you can see when the haze comes to O'ahu — gets deep into the lungs and that's what they say causes the health effects," said Lisa Young, state Department of Health Clean Air Branch environmental specialist. "You have particulates from the fire; that's what is making for poor air quality."
With the light or nonexistent winds in recent weeks, smoke from the brushfire above the cloud line goes down slope into homes during the evening and early morning hours, said Tom Birchard, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Honolulu.
"Part of the problem is that they're close to the source of the volcanic emissions," Birchard said. Plus, "in the last month, the trade winds have been nonexistent."
The light winds are part of the El Niño weather pattern of dry conditions, less rainfall and lower temperatures that were forecast late last year. In line with that was a drought update issued Thursday for the Big Island and Maui. Both islands are classified as experiencing extreme drought.
Little relief is expected in the near future. The forecast calls for more of the same kind of weather — light winds and nighttime land breezes, he said.
"That causes the vog to pool up over the center part of the island and at night it drains out over the lower elevations," Birchard said. "In the near future we are going to be under light winds. That's great Hawai'i visitors weather, but it will be hazy."
No significant rain is expected into next week, either, Birchard said.
With 175,000 people with lung disease statewide and a volcano that has been active for 27 years, air quality is a big concern in Hawai'i.
"It's been quite a challenging year for us," said Jean Evans, American Lung Association in Hawai'i executive director. "And it will continue to be, especially when you combine vog and smoke from brushfires. There's always someone in the line of unclear air. There's not a lot we can do about it."