Author: Clay Trauernicht

Pacific Islands wildfires highlight vulnerability to climate change and how to address it

Source(s): The Hill


Climate change may be looming over more recent fires. In August 2018, abnormally low humidity allowed a complex of fires on west Oahu to burn nearly 5,000 acres through night and day, forcing evacuations across multiple valleys. July of 2019 broke records on Maui for both daily temperatures and fire, with more than 20,000 acres burning across the island’s central valley.


What is also unique about fire on Pacific Islands is how clearly it is linked to people. Lightning is rare on small islands, restricting “natural” fires to volcanic events. When Pacific Islands were first settled, the ignition switch was flipped on, as fire was used for many purposes like clearing land for farming, maintaining access to forested areas, and controlling pests.

Even now, nearly all fires on Pacific Islands are started by people, with ignitions tightly correlated with population. This also means that forest-dwelling plants and animals of Pacific Islands, many of which are found nowhere else, are poorly adapted to fire. However, it is important to understand that the negative impacts of fire on Pacific island ecosystems radically increased with colonization and militarization that brought in weeds, many of which promote fire.


Finally, climate influences fire in the Pacific beyond just drought. Tropical grasses that fuel most fires accumulate large amounts of biomass when there’s ample rainfall. When the rains stop, these fuels cure and the risk of fire increases rapidly. Distinct wet and dry seasons on many islands set them up for annual fire cycles, even under “normal” rainfall. And El Niño-fueled drought affects the entire Pacific basin, leading to large fires even on perennially wet islands of eastern Micronesia. With climate change predicted to increase the intensity of both rainfall events and drought, these cycles will also intensify, making fire seasons more difficult to predict and fires more difficult to suppress.


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Hazards Wildfire
Country and region Oceania
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