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Honouliuli fire crew
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Moloka'i fire fighters
“Years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars of supplies and human effort can be undone as a result of single, large fire.”
Sam 'Ohu Gon
The Conservancy’s Hawai'i Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor
During these hot, dry months of summer, wildfire outbreaks are an ever-present danger in Hawai`i.
Because fire poses such a great threat to Hawaii’s native forests, the Conservancy urges hikers and campers to be fire-smart and extra cautious when visiting Conservancy preserves and other forested areas in the Islands.
While most people recognize the obvious threat of fire to forests and other natural areas, many may not know that Hawaii’s ecosystems are even more vulnerable to fire than most ecosystems in the continental United States.
"Unlike their mainland counterparts, Hawaii’s ecosystems are not adaptive to wildfire," says Sam 'Ohu Gon, senior scientist and cultural advisor for the Conservancy's Hawai`i programs. "Except in active volcanic areas, fire is not a part of the natural life cycle of native Hawaiian ecosystems, and only a few native species are able to regenerate after a fire."
Fires fuel extinction crisis
According to local biologists, some of our rarest native plants are only a wildfire away from extinction. Whereas the growth of fire-adapted alien plant species can actually be stimulated by a prescribed burn, many native species are either killed or slow to recover, and are often displaced by a resurgence of alien weeds in the wake of the blaze.
The void they leave is quickly filled by fire-adapted alien weeds, whose spread displaces native plant species and further increases the risk of future fires. The result: a healthy native system is replaced, perhaps permanently, by an alien one.
Humans are the number one cause of wildfires in Hawai`i, and the number of wildfires is on the rise. In 2005, the largest brush fire in state history consumed more than 25,000 acres on the island of Hawai`i and took five days and $500,000 in personnel and equipment costs to extinguish.
“Years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of supplies and human effort can be undone as a result of single, large fire,” says Gon.
Ed Misaki, director of the Conservancy's Moloka`i programs, echoes that sentiment. Between 1988 and 1998, Moloka‘i experienced three 10,000-acre-plus fires that impacted the Conservancy's Kamakou Preserve. Previous fires allowed flammable alien grasses to gain a foothold and with each new fire, they spread further. The last major fire in 1998 blackened over 13,000 acres and destroyed some of the last remnants of lowland dry forest and rare species.
“The memory of those fires still leaves a bad taste in my mouth," says Misaki. "Walking through the burned native shrubland was very depressing – like losing a friend. It’s heartbreaking to see any part of our ancient forest destroyed by the fire. We’ve lost a part of Moloka`i that I’m not sure will ever be replaced."
Because fire poses such a great threat to Hawaii’s native forests, the Conservancy’s primary wildfire prevention tactic is “pre-suppression.” Basically, pre-suppression consists of minimizing the likelihood of wildfire and maximizing any efforts to alleviate or control potential fire damage.
At each preserve, staff have created access routes for emergency vehicles and helicopter landing zones and maintained wide foot paths to allow firefighters access. On Hawaiʻi Island, the Conservancy bought a used bulldozer that is used to create firebreaks in the event of wildfire.
Vigilance saves natural, cultural treasures
Wildfires threaten our island ecology and economy in far-reaching ways aside from native habitat loss. The spark from a carelessly tossed cigarette can set an inferno ablaze in seconds. Spreading quickly, a wildfire can consume thousands of acres of surrounding land and nearby homes.
Very intense fires can spew great amounts of smoke into the atmosphere, and erosion leads to soil runoff that pollutes watersheds and affects coral reefs and fish that local communities rely on for food and cultural practices. Finally, the destruction of forest cover diminishes the replenishment of natural water reserves.
Native ecosystems and species are the foundation of Hawaii’s unique natural and cultural heritage. We all lose every time there is a wildfire because part of what makes Hawai`i such a special place may be lost forever. Kama`āina and visitors alike share the responsibility of caring for Hawaii’s fragile environment and its watersheds, to ensure that our special places and cultural traditions will live on.
Wildfire Prevention Tips
Here are a few simple steps that people can take to keep our forests and our homes safe from wildfire:
• Those who live near brush should take precautions to protect their homes
• When working with weed eaters or cutting torches, do not set them down when hot or near dry grass or woody vegetation.
• Do not start outdoor fires in forest reserves and hunting areas unless the fire is enclosed in a container.
• Put out cooking fires and campfires quickly.
• Do not park on tall, dry grassy areas. When hot, the catalytic converter on the underside of your vehicle can start a fire.