Wildfires on Oahu: A Review

While historic wildfires continue to scorch their way across the West Coast, Oahu enters its own period of fire flare-ups. While no official fire season exists in Hawaii, late-September and October are the months most prone to wildfires in the Aloha State. 

Already, the two-week period between Sept. 13 – Sept. 26 saw two large brush fires burn in the Honolulu area alone: one on Waialae Nui Ridge on Sept. 18 and the other on Wa’ahila Ridge on Sept. 24. 

While the causes of the fires are under investigation, the large amount of dry grass and shrubbery on both ridges undoubtedly contributed to the scale and spread of those fires. 

These factors underlie greater problems at play which encourage fire action on Oahu. The immediate problem is an abundance of extremely dry tinder, such as fields of grass and shrubbery, a result of land mismanagement and invasive species. The dryness of these starters is brought about by drought and low humidity. 

However, the most pressing matter is climate change, the common denominator for wildfires burning in both Hawaii and on the mainland. 

Though humans start up to 95% of wildfires in Hawaii, climate change ultimately makes starting wildfires easier, fires more frequent, and fueling fires simpler. 

And while the relatively small size of the islands does make fires considerably easier to attend to, the damage they incur should they spark are nevertheless detrimental. 

In the short term, wildfires on the island result in the release of aerial pollutants/particles, property damage, and on occasion, loss of life. The longer-term effects are much harder to address. Such long term effects range from soil erosion, damage to native ecosystems, and even impaired natural aquifer replenishment.

It is imperative to reduce the effects of wildfires, which is best achieved by reducing wildfires altogether. Though climate change is a global issue that Hawaii alone cannot solve, preventative actions can be taken to try and mitigate the severity of immediate causes. Thus, fire management has an increasingly important role in supporting life on Oahu. 

Large scale fire management revolves around prevention and precaution. This is especially true in national forests and other wilderness areas. Debris, brush, and other flammables on the ground are cleared out or thinned, followed by a prescribed burn; by removing volatile sources of kindling and tinder, the chances of fires sparking are significantly reduced. 

The same principles apply to smaller-scale fires, such as those for cooking or camping purposes. During dry seasons, the use of incendiary or sparking devices should be avoided. Brush and other flammable materials must be cleared away from the area before starting fires. 

Overall, Hawaii needs to respond more proactively to the growing threats of wildfires. The conditions that enable this phenomenon to occur so readily are already prevalent, and the state shouldn’t have to bend to accommodate them at risk of further damage.

2020 Hawaii wildfires infographic made using Google Maps by Virgil Lin.

Sources for infographic: