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There’s another wildfire burning in Hawaii. This one is destroying irreplaceable rainforest on Oahu

by Michael Nguyen
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Hawaii Wildfire

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A recent wildfire has struck a remote rainforest in Hawaii, shedding light on a concerning new reality for this typically lush island state. This event follows closely on the heels of a devastating blaze on a neighboring island that razed an entire town, claiming the lives of at least 99 people.

Fortunately, no injuries or property damage occurred in the latest fire, which primarily affected the mountain ridges on Oahu. However, it did exact a significant toll by consuming invaluable native forestland, home to nearly two dozen delicate species. The root cause of this problem remains consistent with the historic fire in Maui’s town of Lahaina: a severe drought exacerbated by climate change, igniting wildfires in Hawaii where they were once virtually unheard of.

JC Watson, the manager of the Koolau Mountains Watershed Partnership, which oversees the affected land, lamented the loss of this beautiful native forest. It was adorned with uluhe ferns, a common sight in Hawaii rainforests, and koa trees, renowned for their traditional use in crafting canoes, surfboards, and ukuleles.

Despite not being a complete incineration, the fire has left the landscape resembling a moonscape, as described by Watson. This occurrence on Oahu’s typically wetter, windward side serves as a clear warning sign of impending change, according to Sam ‘Ohu Gon III, senior scientist and cultural adviser at The Nature Conservancy in Hawaii.

The wildfire primarily ravaged the Oahu Forest National Wildlife Refuge, home to 22 species listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. government. These include iiwi and elepaio birds, a tree snail named pupu kani oe, and the Hawaiian hoary bat, also known as opeapea. The extent of damage to plant and wildlife remains unknown, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, is still assessing the impact.

Since its first spotting on October 30, the fire has consumed 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) and was 90% contained as of Friday. The cause of the blaze, located approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Honolulu, is under investigation.

The aftermath of the fire has left ominous blackened patches amidst the lush greenery that remained untouched. The skeletal remains of charred trees punctuate the scorched landscape.

While the burn area may appear relatively small compared to mainland U.S. wildfires, it’s essential to recognize that Hawaii’s intact native ecosystems are already limited in size, especially on smaller islands like Oahu. Consequently, even minor fires can have far-reaching consequences.

One major concern is the potential replacement of native forest with different plant species. Hawaii’s native flora evolved without regular exposure to fires, making fire an unnatural component of their life cycle. Typically, faster-growing non-native plants with more seeds tend to take root in place of the native species after a fire.

In this context, it’s worth noting that a previous fire in 2015 near the latest fire site on Oahu transformed the landscape from one featuring uluhe ferns, koa trees, and ohia trees to one dominated by invasive grasses that are more susceptible to wildfires.

Moreover, a much larger fire in the Waianae mountains in 2016 wiped out one of the last remaining populations of a rare tree gardenia. Such incidents also entail cultural losses, as native forests played a significant role in Hawaiian heritage. An old Central Oahu legend recounts a warrior saved by an ohia tree, while feathers from Hawaii’s forest birds were once used to create cloaks and helmets for chiefs.

Efforts are now underway to assess the damage in collaboration with the Fish and Wildlife Service, with plans to restore the area by controlling invasive species and reintroducing native ones. However, it’s acknowledged that the landscape will never fully return to its former state in our lifetimes.

The Mililani Mauka fire, named after its origin point, unfolded in the Koolau mountains, which usually receive ample rainfall due to their location on Oahu’s windward side. However, persistent and prolonged drought episodes are making even these wet areas dry, increasing the likelihood of future fires.

Notably, most wildfires in Hawaii are human-caused, emphasizing the need for greater awareness and prevention measures. One suggested approach is to establish buffer zones with less flammable vegetation in former sugarcane and pineapple plantation lands, typically found at lower elevations. Many of these areas have been overrun by dry, invasive grasses, which were a contributing factor in the Lahaina fire earlier.

Furthermore, it’s worth considering the potential impact on Oahu’s freshwater supply, though this is challenging to quantify precisely. Oahu relies on aquifers for its drinking water, and native forests are the best at absorbing rainwater. Hence, the disappearance of high-quality forests is likely to have some effect, potentially necessitating further measures to protect these resources.

To mitigate future wildfires and their consequences, state officials are seeking additional funding from the Legislature. These funds would support efforts such as updated firefighting equipment, firebreaks, new water sources for fire suppression, reforestation with native trees and plants, and seed storage. Prompt action is essential to prevent yearly fires from eroding the source of Hawaii’s water supply.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Hawaii Wildfire

What caused the wildfire in Hawaii’s rainforest?

The wildfire in Hawaii’s rainforest was primarily caused by a severe drought exacerbated by climate change. This prolonged dry spell created conditions conducive to wildfires.

What was the extent of the damage to the native forest and wildlife?

The fire consumed 2.5 square miles of land, including the Oahu Forest National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge was home to 22 endangered or threatened species. The full extent of damage to plant and wildlife is still being assessed.

How are wildfires affecting Hawaii’s native ecosystems?

Wildfires in Hawaii, especially in areas not historically prone to fires, disrupt native ecosystems. Native plants, which did not evolve to withstand fires, are often replaced by faster-growing non-native species after a fire, altering the landscape and threatening native flora and fauna.

What steps are being taken to restore the affected area?

Efforts are underway to assess the damage and develop a restoration plan. This plan includes controlling invasive species and reintroducing native ones. However, it’s acknowledged that the landscape will never fully return to its former state in the foreseeable future.

How can future wildfires in Hawaii be prevented?

Most wildfires in Hawaii are human-caused. Preventative measures include raising awareness about fire prevention, establishing buffer zones with less flammable vegetation, and seeking additional funding for firefighting equipment, firebreaks, and reforestation efforts.

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