Wildfires in Hawaii burn homes, forcing evacuations as high winds hamper response

HONOLULU – Wildfires in Hawaii fanned by strong winds burned several structures, forced evacuations and caused power outages in several communities Tuesday evening as firefighters struggled to reach some areas cut by downed trees and power lines .

The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which passed south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles, was partly responsible for gusts above 60 mph that knocked out power at dusk. at night, shook houses and grounded firefighting helicopters.

Acting Governor Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Governor Josh Green, who is traveling, and activated the Hawaii National Guard.

Maui fire crews were battling multiple blazes concentrated in two areas: the popular tourist destination of West Maui and a mountainous inland region. It was not immediately known how many buildings had burned down, Maui County spokeswoman Mahina Martin said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening.

Due to gusty winds, helicopters were unable to drop water on the fires from the sky – or measure more accurate fire sizes – and firefighters encountered roads blocked by trees downed and power lines as they worked on the fires inland, Martin said.

About 13,000 customers in Maui were without power, Hawaiian Electric reported Tuesday evening.

“This is definitely one of the toughest days for our island given that it’s multiple fires, multiple evacuations in the different areas of the district,” Martin said.

Winds were recorded at 80 mph in inland Maui and a fire that would have been brought under control earlier on Tuesday broke out hours later with the high winds, she added.

“The fire may be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two it can be in your house,” Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Giesea said.

Hurricane Dora complicated matters for firefighters in an already dry season.

Hawaii is sandwiched between high pressure to the north and a low pressure system associated with Dora, said Honolulu meteorologist Jeff Powell. Drought and gusting “create a dangerous fire situation, so the fires that do exist can spread out of control very quickly,” he said.

“It’s kind of because of Hurricane Dora, but it’s not a direct result,” he said, calling the fires a “peripheral result” of the hurricane’s winds.

In Maui’s Kula area, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 1,100 acres, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.

“We’re trying to protect the homes in the community,” Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said of the evacuation of about 400 homes in four North Island communities. On Tuesday, the roof of a house caught fire, he said.

The fires in Hawaii are different from those burning in the western United States. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of islands and are generally much smaller than the fires on the mainland.

Fires were rare in Hawaii and other tropical islands before humans arrived, and native ecosystems evolved without them. This means that great environmental damage can occur when fires break out. For example, fires remove vegetation. When a fire is followed by heavy rain, the rain can carry loose soil into the ocean, where it can smother coral reefs.

A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.

The island of Oahu, where Honolulu is located, was also struggling with power outages, downed power lines and traffic issues, said Adam Weintraub, director of communications for the Agency for Hawaii ER.

The weather service has indeed issued a strong wind warning and red flag warnings for dangerous fire weather, Powell said.

These conditions were expected through Tuesday, diminishing throughout Wednesday and into Thursday.

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