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Record wildfire burns amid drought on Hawaii's Big Island

Firefighters have gotten more control over a wildfire in Hawaii that forced thousands of people to evacuate over the weekend and destroyed at least two homes on the Big Island, but officials warned strong winds Monday (Aug 2) could raise the danger again.

Record wildfire burns amid drought on Hawaii's Big Island

Vehicles are backed up on Waikoloa Road after a mandatory evacuation was ordered as a wildfire approached the Waikoloa Village area of Hawaii, on Aug 1, 2021. (Photo: Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today via AP)

HONOLULU: Firefighters have gotten more control over a wildfire in Hawaii that forced thousands of people to evacuate over the weekend and destroyed at least two homes on the Big Island, but officials warned strong winds Monday (Aug 2) could raise the danger again.

Authorities have lifted evacuation orders but warned they could be reinstated at any time and that people should be ready to go.

“This is the largest fire that we’ve had here in Hawaii County,” Cyrus Johnasen, director of communications for Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth, said of the more than 160 sq km blaze. “We would like folks to feel safe but not forget that this is an emergency.”

Fires in Hawaii are unlike many of those burning in the US West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires.

Even though Hawaii has a wet, tropical climate that isn’t typically at risk from large fires, blazes could become more frequent as climate change-related weather patterns intensify.

The islands have seen a downward trend in overall rainfall in recent years. Drought conditions have reached the most severe level in some parts of Hawaii in recent years, according to the US Drought Monitor. Drought that is tied to climate change has made wildfires harder to fight.

Vehicles turn onto Queen Kaahumanu Highway from an emergency access route opened after residents and visitors lodging in the Waikoloa Village area of Hawaii were ordered to evacuate as a wildfire threatened the South Kohala town on Aug 1, 2021. (Photo: Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today via AP)

Two homes were confirmed destroyed in the Hawaii fire. One homeowner said he tried to protect his property but lost the battle as the wind picked up.

“I had a dozer on my lawn, my land, and I tried to make a fire break,” Joshua Kihe of the community of Waimea told Hawaii News Now. He said the fire destroyed his home.

“I definitely need to think of a plan because it’s a life-changer,” he said.

Others scrambled to evacuate.

“I just seen the flames coming," Waimea resident Kanani Malakaua said. “I mainly got my important papers, made sure my kids were in the car, got my animals - but this is a very, very scary time for us.”

Some nearby roads were closed, making certain neighbourhoods inaccessible, but there was no imminent threat to those houses.

Hawaii County Fire Chief Kazuo Todd said winds were expected to increase Monday.

“Our current wind forecast is showing wind patterns between 18 to 20 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph," Todd said Sunday night, “and so while throughout the evening our crews will be working to build fire breaks with dozers and back burns, this temporary lift on the mandatory evacuation may have to be reinforced later on due to prevailing weather patterns.”

READ: Greece fights fires during 'worst heatwave since 1987'

READ: Wildfires blaze on in drought-hit Turkey as criticism grows

The fire chief said nearby communities could be inundated with smoke and that anyone with health or breathing problems should find somewhere else to stay.

On Monday, Johnasen said homes weren't in danger, but “that doesn't mean they couldn't be in danger later this evening, or early tomorrow morning or even later this week".

Several wildfires also were burning in drought-stricken California and Oregon.

Traffic was backed up for miles on Waikoloa Road and Queen Kaahumanu Highway after a mandatory evacuation was ordered as a wildfire approached the Waikoloa Village area in Hawaii on Aug 1, 2021. (Photo: Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today via AP)

Containment on Monday reached 35 per cent for California's largest, the Dixie Fire, which covered about 1,005 sq km in mountains where 45 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

Evacuation orders and warnings were lifted over the weekend for several areas in Northern California. But gusty winds were expected to push flames through dry fuels on remote hillsides.

Over the weekend, a lightning-sparked wildfire threatened remote homes along the Trinity River in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The 13 sq km McFarland Fire was 5 per cent contained Monday.

In southern Oregon, lightning struck parched forests hundreds of times in 24 hours, igniting some 50 new wildfires as the nation’s largest blaze burned less than 161km away, officials said Monday.

Firefighters and aircraft pounced on the new fires before they could spread out of control. No homes were immediately threatened.

The Bootleg Fire, the nation’s largest at 1,676 sq km, was 84 per cent contained Monday, though it isn’t expected to be fully under control until Oct 1.

Source: AP/ec

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