Firefighters continue to fight massive wildfire in Hawaii

HONOLULU — A wildfire on the Big Island of Hawaii grew overnight as firefighters worked to contain the large blaze that burns in a rural area between the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

No homes were in danger, but flames came within miles of a critical highway on Friday. The area where the fire is burning is dominated by shrubs and grasslands that have dried out due to the region’s ongoing drought.

“For the past two days, the fire has been burning mostly in invasive fountain grass,” said Steve Bergfeld, Hawaii Island branch manager for the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife. “Unfortunately, the fire has moved to a dry forest that has native ōhiʻa lehua (trees), and we are trying to keep flames away from this sensitive area.”

The gusts of wind made it a challenge to contain the blaze that started in the western reaches of the US Army’s Pohakuloa training area, above Waikoloa Village, a town of about 7,000.

The fire had burned more than 25 square miles (66 square kilometers) as of Friday, officials said. Earlier in the day, the state had estimated that the fire had burned more than 39 square miles (101 square kilometers), but that number dwindled after formal aerial surveying Friday afternoon. They estimated the fire had burned about 15 square miles as of Thursday.

Crews used seven bulldozers to build lines of fire around the blaze and five military helicopters dropped thousands of gallons of water on the hottest part of the blaze Friday, according to the State Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The flames were largely confined to the military training ground area in a region bounded by Saddle Road, Highway 190, and an 1859 lava flow.

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Fire managers hope the field of hardened lava rock will act as a natural fire stop when it reaches that point, the department said.

Last year, the same region of the Big Island saw the largest wildfire ever in the state, an eruption that destroyed several homes and threatened thousands more. It burned more than 70 square miles (181 square kilometers) on the slopes of Mauna Kea, the state’s tallest mountain.

Like many Pacific islands, Hawaii’s dry seasons are becoming more extreme due to climate change. Major wildfires highlight the dangers of climate-related heat and drought for many communities in the US and other hot spots around the world. But experts say fires on typically wet, tropical Pacific islands are also increasing.

State officials said the fire started several weeks ago and was smoldering until high winds revived the flames this week. Strong winds have been recorded all over the area, some exceeding 48 km/h.

An army spokesman told The Associated Press that although there is active military training in the area, the cause of the fire is under investigation.

“There are units training up there, I can’t confirm or deny whether there was any shooting,” said Michael O. Donnelly, chief of external communications for US Army Garrison Hawaii. “It’s business as usual, but we don’t know the exact cause.”


AP journalist Jennifer Sinco Kelleher contributed to this report.

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