Wildland fire expert and 2019 winner of the Excellence in Extension award Clay Trauernicht (NREM) was recently interviewed by Noe Tanigawa on Hawai‘i Public Radio’s Planet 808 show about the increasing danger of wildfire in the Islands and its connection with climate change.
While greater heat and drought are implicated, Clay also discussed other significant drivers of wildland fire, such as the decrease in ranching and the dramatic shrinking of the extensive tracts of ag land that existed in the plantation era. Much of the land that was once managed with irrigation and grazing is now overgrown with quick-burning invasive grasses and trees that make the perfect tinder for wildfires. He points out that the numbers of ignitions start to rise around the 1960s, just when ag lands began to dwindle.
And they have continued to rise, he explains. Some 20,000 acres burn throughout the state per year, with 500 to 600 ignitions yearly just on O‘ahu. Clay warns that the extent of the wildfires in the Islands nowadays is getting beyond what the state’s fire departments can handle, recalling two notable fires recently that “jumped” from one valley to the next.
Clay also noted, surprisingly that about 20 percent of the wildland fires on O‘ahu were lit intentionally. While this is a troubling statistic, it’s also a potential opportunity: hopefully community education, such as Clay’s interview, will dissuade future arsonists from sparking any more such fires!