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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fire risk, little rain concern officials

By David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writer

The end of Hawai'i's wet season coupled with relatively little rain during the winter months is sparking concerns by county, state and federal officials about what this summer will bring in terms of wildfires.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources already has asked for the public's help in preventing fires.

DLNR officials cited a fire on April 26 at Keawa'ula Bay, also known as Yokohama Bay, on O'ahu's Leeward Coast that scorched 15 acres as an indication of what could follow.

A stolen truck was deliberately set on fire, leading to a blaze that cost the DLNR's Division of Forestry and Wildlife an estimated $21,000 to put out and caused $27,600 in damage to the land that burned, state officials said.

They will join with representatives from the county and federal fire departments, the Honolulu Police Department and the National Weather Service's Honolulu Forecast Office later this week or early next week to talk about what they expect during the forthcoming "wildfire season" on O'ahu.

"We had an El Nino winter, which contributed to a drier than normal winter on O'ahu, especially along the Leeward Coast," said Kevin Kodama, hydrologist with the NWS Honolulu Forecast Office.

El Nino is a weather phenomenom that results in higher-than-usual ocean surface temperatures, which, in turn, have an effect on rainfall, hurricanes, temperatures and other weather conditions.

"The windward area got some relief, but even rainfall there was weak due to the El Nino conditions," Kodama said.

Rainfall figures for April had not been added to the year-to-date figures compiled by the Honolulu Forecast Office, but tallies for January through March show much of O'ahu to be drier than normal, with no areas receiving more than 71 percent of the normal average for the first three months of the year.

Through March 30, Wai'anae had received 21 percent of its normal year-to-date rainfall, while the Kahuku training area had received 19 percent of normal rainfall for the first three months.

The normally soggy St. Stephen's Seminary, along Pali Highway above Kailua, usually averages about 27 inches of rain during the first quarter of the year. But at the end of March, the rainfall total there stood at 3.84 inches, or about 14 percent of the norm, according to National Weather Service records.

Weed grasses, haole koa and kiawe have been thriving in undeveloped areas, despite the scarcity of rain, state and county officials said.

But much of the vegetation has already begun to turn from a vibrant green to yellow or even brown, a sign that it wouldn't take much to set off a major wildfire, or "brushfire" in the local vernacular.

Paul Conroy, administrator for the DLNR's Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said that while the Keawa'ula brushfire appears to have been a case of arson, it advanced rapidly into nearby brush and "could have damaged surrounding forest areas."

The fast-spreading fire indicates that dry conditions are present, Conway said.

"Arson-caused wildland fire is a crime that destroys our natural resources and can, if it escapes, threaten human life and property," Conway said in a news release. "We are asking the public to be alert promptly notify authorities of suspicious fire starts, and help prevent wildfires this summer."

Capt. Terry Seelig, Honolulu Fire Department spokesman, said wildfires are a year-round problem on O'ahu, but are even more so during the hot summer months when the moisture dries out the brush and ground cover, making them even more flammable.

The National Weather Service has already posted several "red flag" warnings so far this year on O'ahu and other areas of the state, indicating that high winds, low humidity and dry vegetation could lead to prime wildfire conditions, Seelig said.

Anyone who sees a brushfire or even smoke from a possible fire should report it, Seelig said.

"Never assume someone else has reported it call it in," he said.

In addition, O'ahu residents should create a minimum 30-foot fire safety zone around their homes, not stack combustible material above or below their homes, and have a plan to evacuate themselves and their children during a wildfire, should it be necessary.

"You need to think about what you want to take with you and what you will leave behind before the time comes," Seelig said.

"And if your children are not home and you're not, and the neighbor's children are home and you are, but their parents are not, you need to have a plan worked out ahead of time."