By Jim Mendoza| June 9, 2015 at 9:38 PM HST - Updated July 25 at 3:30 AM
HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow)
On the Big Island, Ohia trees and their bright red flowers populate the landscape.
"On the Big Island it's 50 percent of our trees," said Flint Hughes, researcher with Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry.
The native species present on public and private property and in the Big Island's forest reserves is being killed off at a rapid rate by a newly identified disease.
"The genus of the fungus is Ceratocystis. Ceratocystis causes major problems in tree species around the world," said Lisa Keith, plant pathologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
The fungus first showed up in Big Island ohia trees five years ago around Leilani Estates. Scientists don't know how it got there or why it's now spreading fast. It has been found in the Puna forest reserve and it's moving.
"We have even greater concern about it spreading into the sub-montane forest where that's really the heart of ohia forest across the Big Island," Hughes said.
The browning of the top of an ohia tree is the outward sign of infection. Inwardly the bark gets discolored. Diseased ohia die within weeks.
"One minute it looks alive. Then it looks almost frozen in time. It's now dead," Keith said.
So far, there's no report the fungus has spread beyond the Big Island, where estimates say it's killed up to 15,000 acres of ohia.
"The spread is a big concern for us," Hughes said.
Ohia is cut for firewood, posts, poles and flooring. While scientists search for how the disease spreads and how to stop it, they recommend not moving cut wood that's contaminated.
"Probably better in a way to leave the material on your property because it's a diseased area, instead of moving that wood to a healthy looking forest area," Keith said.
Researchers are trying to figure out whether the killer fungus is also present in ohia seedlings and blossoms. If you suspect ohia on your property or in areas you frequent are infected, contact the UH College of Tropical Agriculture through the website at ohiawilt.org.