Author: Emma Marris

Hawaii wildfires: did scientists expect Maui to burn?

Source(s): Nature Publishing Group

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Managing fire in Hawaii

What could be done to guard against disaster in future? Among other actions, the 2021 Maui County report recommended that the island emphasize prevention of ignition through public education and tackling the grasses that serve as fuel for many Hawaiian fires. It called for an “aggressive plan to replace these hazardous fuel sources with native plants to reduce combustible fuel while increasing water retention”.

The flammable grasses in question — including Cenchrus clandestinus (kikuyu grass), Cenchrus setaceus (fountain grass), Melinus minutiflora (molasses grass) and Megathyrsus maximus (guinea grass) — were introduced around the turn of the twentieth century as forage or ornamental plants. But native Hawaiian dryland plants are not necessarily more fire resistant, says Katie Kamelamela, an ethnoecologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. What matters is how much dry fuel is on the land, and how it is arranged. Grazing can reduce fuel loads. Bare areas, wet vegetation in the shape of active farms, or even fish ponds can help stop or slow fires.

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Interest is increasing among many Native Hawaiians and Hawaii residents in reinvesting in traditional forms of agriculture and aquaculture. Groups such as Ao‘ao O Nā Loko I‘a O Maui (the Maui Fishpond Association) and Kipahulu Ohana are trying to revitalize traditional food production, which would create a landscape that is much less flammable than the untended grasslands that currently cover 24% of the state’s total land area. A 2019 study found that Hawaii’s traditional agroecosystems could support nearly all of the islands’ current population.

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Climatologists and meteorologists also want the collection and dissemination of Hawaii’s climate data to come into line with the contiguous United States. There’s no daily or monthly data for soil moisture or potential evapotranspiration available for Hawaii, and the state is not included in many of the scientific products issued by the US federal government, such as the Crop Moisture Index. But the University of Hawaii has high-resolution grid data on temperature, rainfall and other variables, says Frazier.

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Hazards Wildfire
Country and region United States of America
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