Scientists fear ongoing disaster for native plants, wildlife from latest Hawaii Island fire

The fire is now 90% contained but re-kindling is a possibility, DLNR said.
Published: Aug. 17, 2022 at 8:14 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 17, 2022 at 10:13 PM HST
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WAIKOLOA (HawaiiNewsNow) - The latest large wildfire to scorch Hawaii Island is taking yet another toll of native plants and wildlife.

And experts fear more fires will happen more frequently, putting Hawaii’s dryland forests in danger.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said the Leilani Wildfire near Waikoloa Village was 90% contained Wednesday after scorching 26.5 square miles.

The land department said the blaze started in the Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area and spread to the Puuanahulu Game Management Area, burning a rare native dryland forest.

Environmentalists characterize it as a 17,000 acre disaster — and that’s only above the surface.

“Underground, it’s sort of a swiss cheese of these lava tubes, and some of them are extensive and they go on for miles, but it turns out we actually have ecosystems inside these lava tubes,” said Dr. Jonathan Price, a member of the UH-Hilo Department of Geography and Environmental Science.

Those ecosystems include the roots of the island’s precious ohia trees, helping a whole community of underground insects survive.

“Instead of plants growing from the ground up and things sort of feeding on them, they’re growing down,” said Price. “And there are things feeding on them in this cave environment.”

“Native resources are slow to respond and recover, just because — one, they’re trees, and two, they just grow really, really slowly,” said Ian Cole, the East Hawaii Island wildlife manager for the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Cole added that the loss of native forest is always hard on forest birds.

The Leilani Wildfire is the island’s second major blaze in two years. Last summer, the largest fire in state history burned more than 44,000 acres south of Waimea.

“You’re talking about a five that’s burning 5% of the island in a single event,” said Price. “If 5% of California burned tomorrow, it would be just a shock to everybody.”

Adding to the worry, is what comes next.

The Leilani Wildfire was fueled by non-native fountain grass and experts said its intense burn not only killed native species, but has started a vicious cycle.

“You lose the trees,” said J.B. Friday, an extension forester with the UH-Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

“When you lose the trees, you get more grass. When you get more grass, you get more fire. You get more fire, you get fewer trees, you get more grass.”

It’s not clear how long it will take to assess the damage, but DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife said it could have a better idea by the end of this month.

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