HONOLULU – A wildfire on Hawaii's Big Island grew overnight as firefighters worked to contain the large blaze that is burning in a rural area between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes.
No homes were at risk, but the flames came within miles of a critical highway Friday. The area where the fire is burning is dominated by shrubs and grasslands that are parched from persistent drought in the region.
“The last two days the fire was mostly burning in invasive fountain grass," said Steve Bergfeld, the Hawaii Island branch manager for the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife. "Unfortunately, the fire has moved into some dryland forest which has native ōhiʻa lehua (trees), and we are trying to keep flames away from this sensitive area.”
Gusty winds were making it challenging to contain the blaze that started in the western reaches of the U.S. Army's Pohakuloa Training Area, which is above Waikoloa Village, a town of about 7,000 people.
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 the fire had burned more than 39 square miles (101 square kilometers), but reduced that number after formal aerial mapping Friday afternoon. They estimated the fire had burned about 15 square miles as of Thursday.
Crews were using seven bulldozers to build fire lines around the blaze and five military helicopters were dropping thousands of gallons of water on the hottest part of the fire Friday, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Flames were largely contained to the military training area land in a region bounded by Saddle Road, Highway 190 and an 1859 lava flow.
Fire managers are hoping the field of hardened lava rock will act as a natural fire break if it reaches that point, the department said.
Last year the same region of the Big Island saw the state's largest-ever wildfire, a blaze 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 islands in the Pacific, Hawaii’s dry seasons are getting more extreme with climate change. Large wildfires highlight the dangers of climate-related heat and drought for many communities throughout the U.S. and other hotspots around the world. But experts say fires on typically wet, tropical islands in the Pacific are also on the rise.
State land officials said the fire actually began several weeks ago and smoldered until strong winds this week reinvigorated the flames. Strong winds have been recorded across the area, some in excess of 30 mph (48 kph).
A spokesperson for the Army told The Associated Press that while there is active military training in the area, the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
“There are units up there training, I can't confirm or deny if live fire was taking place,” said Michael O. Donnelly, chief of external communications for the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii. “It's business as usual, but the exact cause we don't know.”
AP journalist Jennifer Sinco Kelleher contributed to this report.