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Drought in Hawaii fuels rare concerns about November wildfires


You don’t often expect to hear “Hawaii” and “fire hazard” in the same sentence, but wildfire concerns have been very real in the Aloha state in recent days. A persistent drought dries out the landscape, with noticeable consequences for agriculture and ecosystems.

More than half of Hawaii is currently experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with 30 percent experiencing moderate or worse drought. That’s according to the federal government’s Drought Monitor, which provides detailed weekly summaries of drought intensity and effects across the United States.

More than 80 percent of the US is experiencing troubling dry conditions

The Drought Monitor even warns that, in the few isolated areas entrenched in extreme drought, “feral donkeys are moving into populated areas” and that “trees are dry and dropping leaves.” That exacerbates the risk of wildfires even more, something the local National Weather Service office in Honolulu is increasingly concerned about.

“A combination of high winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior,” it warned Monday, after issuing a red flag. Such warnings do not predict the igniting of wildfires, but rather indicate that any sparks could quickly turn into raging infernos.

The red flag warning in effect Monday was Hawaii’s first in November since 2012.

Red flag warnings are more commonly issued in the late summer months of August and September when the landscape tends to become dehydrated after the dry summer season.

According to the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, “0.5 percent of Hawaii’s total land area burns each year, equal to or greater than the portion burned by any other U.S. state.”

Autumn rains usually end the dry summer season, but this year they have been unreliable. In Honolulu, only 0.09 inches of rain has fallen so far in November, about an inch and a half behind the average, and only half of normal rainfall fell in October.

Since the start of the year, Honolulu has gained 9.8 inches, compared to an average of 13.6; while it represents a 28 percent deficit, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in 1998, when just 3.34 inches had fallen from mid-to-late November.

Temperatures are also at their peak in late summer, which means the greatest amount of evaporation. That dries out the landscape, with a rapid drying out between late July and early October. The drought peaked in early September this year when 94 percent of the state was affected.

Much of Hawaii remained dry until late October, when beneficial rains came. But the dry weather has now returned.

“In the wake of declining rainfall, Hawaii became somewhat drier amid a mostly trade wind regime,” the Drought Monitor wrote. “The result was that no further improvement was noted in Hawaii, after 9 consecutive weeks of a reduction in drought.”

The lack of rainfall this year has led to low relative humidity, sometimes below 45 percent. While 45 percent is humid by California standards, it is quite dry on a tropical island chain like Hawaii, located at about 20 degrees north latitude. In recent days, a strong clockwise high-pressure system north of the archipelago has swirled dry air to the south, while also generating gusts of wind.

Aside from the obvious wildfire risk issues, the ongoing drought is also impacting agriculture and the ecosystem. In August, about 8 percent of Maui was listed as being in “exceptional” drought — the highest level.

SFGate.com, an online news outlet based in San Francisco, reported that the lack of rain and past pineapple-growing practices in the mountains of West Maui have made it more difficult to retain and retain water, impacting reservoir levels and farmers.

On Molokai and Maui, wild deer encroach on farmland and compete with livestock for resources, in part because of the arid conditions. Donkeys also roam populated areas.

“Despite continued efforts, the Ash deer population has grown to approximately 60,000 or more, which cannot be sustained by the environment in Maui County,” read a proclamation from Hawaii Governor David Ige (D), released Nov. 18. This is the governor’s fifth consecutive proclamation regarding the deer crisis, with special measures remaining in effect until Jan. 17.

“This includes corralling axis deer, culling the deer to sustainable levels, removing vegetation along perimeter lines, and erecting and/or strengthening perimeter lines to keep axis deer away from roads, airports and runways,” the document said.

The winter outlook from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center calls for a gradual improvement in the state’s drought.

Hawaii joins large parts of the Lower 48 that are also currently experiencing significant drought. The Nov. 15 Drought Monitor update showed that 82 percent of the contiguous U.S. is experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions — nearly the highest rate on record (85 percent as of Nov. 1 this year).

A July study in the Journal of Climate noted that Hawaii’s drought, which has endured for most of the past decade, is among the most severe on record. However, it was unable to link the drought to long-term climate change because computer models evaluating its causes failed to detect human influence.

“[N]Not every event has a clear and simple “first cause” — natural weather mechanisms prove powerful in generating extreme events and trends over significant time periods,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office wrote in a press release.

The U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in 2018, warned that rising temperatures will increase the risk of extreme drought and flooding in Pacific island communities in the future.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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