Record wildfire burns amid drought on Hawaii's Big Island

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A firefighter uses a drip torch to ignite vegetation while trying to stop the Dixie Fire from spreading in Lassen National Forest, Calif., on Monday, July 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

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 could raise the danger again.

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

“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 62-square-mile (160-square-kilometer) 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Drought Monitor. Drought tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight.

In the Hawaii fire, two homes were confirmed destroyed so far, and officials asked residents to report any additional damage.

Big Island officials said Sunday night that they were unable to fly over the blaze to get an updated size estimate. The fire is likely to have grown larger since the last flyover, and officials said they would try again Monday.

Some nearby roads were closed, making certain neighborhoods inaccessible to residents, but there was no imminent threat to homes.

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.”

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.

Johnasen said that the fire chief's message could soon change.

“Right now homes are not in danger,” Johnasen said Monday. "That doesn't mean they couldn't be in danger later this evening, or early tomorrow morning or even later this week, so be on high alert."

In California, where several wildfires were burning, containment on Monday reached 35% for the largest, the Dixie Fire, which covered about 388 square miles (1,005 square kilometers) in mountains where 45 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

Evacuation orders and warnings were lifted over the weekend for several areas in the northern part of the state. But gusty winds were expected to push flames through extremely 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 5-square-mile (13-square-mile) McFarland Fire was 5% contained Monday.