A wildfire that occurred in a remote rainforest in Hawaii highlights a new reality for the typically lush island state.

Just a few months after a devastating blaze on a neighboring island claimed numerous lives, a new Hawaiian wildfire has scorched the mountain ridges on Oahu. Fortunately, the new fire did not cause any property damage or loss of human life.

However, the fire did cause significant damage to irreplaceable native forestland. This forestland serves as a habitat for nearly two dozen at-risk species.

The Mililani Mauka fire

The Mililani Mauka fire, named after its starting location, occurred in the Koolau Mountains. These mountains are located on Oahu’s wetter, windward side. They very rarely experience wildfires.

However, Hawaii has had a much drier than average year this year. An October report found that 16 percent of the state is in severe to extreme drought. This number is expected to rise to more than 40 percent by early 2024.

The fire occurred within the Oahu Forest National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to 22 endangered or threatened species, including birds, a tree snail, and the Hawaiian hoary bat.

While firefighters managed to extinguish the Mililani Mauka fire with the assistance of rainfall last week, its effects will be long-lasting.

Invasive grasses

Environmental scientists are concerned that the fire could cause the replacement of native forests with invasive plant species.

According to NBC, native plants in Hawaii evolved without experiencing regular fires, as fire is not a natural part of their life cycle. This makes it hard for native plants to grow back after wildfires take place.

For example, in a forest on Oahu that was affected by a fire in 2015, uluhe ferns, koa trees, and ohia trees were present. Now, invasive grasses that are more susceptible to fires dominate the land.

To address the damage caused by the fire, surveys are being conducted by the Koolau Mountains Watershed Partnership in collaboration with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The restoration plan will involve controlling invasive species and planting native plants.

However, there are limits to what can be done. Experts believe that the area will never fully return to its previous state within our lifetimes.

Dry, invasive grasses also played a role in the devastating fire that swept through Lahaina in August. The exact cause of the fire is under investigation, but it is believed to have been initiated by downed power lines igniting the dry grass.

With the assistance of strong winds from a nearby hurricane, the Lahaina fire rapidly spread. It destroyed over 2,000 structures and displaced 8,000 individuals.

The link to climate change  

The Mililani Mauka fire is not the only major blaze to occur in a wet climate this year. Last May, a wildfire in the normally rainy Canadian province of Nova Scotia forced 14,000 people in the town of Tantallon to flee. The 2023 fire season has been the worst in Nova Scotia’s history.

Moreover, a growing amount of research suggests that wildfires in wet climates will become an increasing problem in the coming decades.

A 2022 study found that climate change will cause precipitation patterns in wet climates to become more erratic. Warming temperatures will make it easier for fires to spread. Warming temperatures will also allow the air to hold more moisture.

The combination of these factors will make it increasingly common for wildfires to be followed by record-breaking downpours.

Image Source: The Hotshot Wake Up