Honolulu — a forest fire airyFirefighters worked to put out a large fire burning in a rural area between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes as the large island grew overnight.
No homes were at risk, but the flames came within miles of an important highway on Friday. The area where the fire is burning is dominated by shrubs and grasslands, which have been affected by persistent drought in the region.
“The fire was burning mostly in the aggressive fountain grass over the past two days,” said Steve Bergfeld, airy Island Branch Manager of the Land and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Wildlife. “Unfortunately, the fire has moved to some dryland forest, which has native shia lehua (trees), and we are trying to keep the flames out of this sensitive area.”
Strong winds were making it challenging to contain the fire that began in the western reaches of the US Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area, which is above the village of Waikoloa, a city of about 7,000 people.
Officials said the fire had burned more than 25 square miles (66 square kilometers) as of Friday. Earlier in the day the state estimated the fire had burned more than 39 square miles (101 square kilometers), but reduced that number after formal aerial mapping Friday afternoon. He estimated the fire had burned about 15 square miles as of Thursday.
According to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, crews were using seven bulldozers to douse the fire around the blaze and five military helicopters were spilling thousands of gallons of water on the hottest part of the fire Friday.
The flames were largely contained in the land of Saddle Road, Highway 190 and the Military Training Area in an area surrounded by 1859 lava flows.
The department said fire managers are hoping that the area of hard lava rock will act as a natural fire breakout.
Last year, this same area of the Big Island saw the state’s largest wildfire ever, destroying many homes and threatening thousands. It burned over 70 square miles (181 square kilometers) on the slopes of Mauna Kea, the state’s highest mountain.
Like many islands in the Pacific, Hawaii’s dry seasons are becoming more extreme with climate change. Large wildfires highlight the dangers of climate-related heat and drought for many communities across the US and other hotspots around the world. But experts say fires are also increasing on typically moist tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean.
State land officials said the fire actually started several weeks ago and continued to smolder until strong winds resurfaced the flames this week. Strong winds have been recorded throughout the region, some over 30 mph (48 kph).
Winds had eased somewhat, but gusts of up to 25 mph (40 kph) were expected later Friday, said Steve Bergfield, chief of the Hawaiian Islands Branch for the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
The area is dominated by shrublands and grasslands that have been dried up by frequent droughts.
The Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources released video of the fire on Thursday.
An army spokesman told The Associated Press that active military training is underway in the area, but the cause of the fire is under investigation.
“There are training units out there that I can’t confirm or deny if there was live fire,” said Michael O’Donnelly, chief of external communications for the US Army Garrison Hawaii. “It’s business as usual, but the exact reason we don’t know.”
AP journalist Jennifer Cinco Kelleher contributed to this report.