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Drought likely to expand, peak of wildfire season expected sooner

Existing areas of extreme and exceptional drought in Maui County are expected to expand as forecasts show below-normal rainfall through the dry season, which lasts from May through September.

“We are looking at drier-than-average rainfall conditions for the state, for the summer, and with the potential a third year of La Nina conditions,” said Kevin Kodama, hydrologist at the National Weather Service on Oahu, during a news conference on Wednesday.

He said this would only be the third time in the last 50 years that the islands would experience three La Nina years in a row.

According to a map released May 12 on the U.S. Drought Monitor website, the central to western half of Molokai is already in extreme drought, or what is known as the “D3” category. The majority of Lanai is in severe drought, or “D2.”

On Maui, the Kihei area is in extreme drought and areas such as Lahaina, Kahului and the western slopes of Haleakala are all in severe drought.

Kodama said drought in these areas will “intensify and expand even further.”

“That will have a significant impact on the agriculture sector, especially for nonirrigated interest, so that’s the ranching community especially,” Kodama added.

Because of the dry conditions, Kodama said the peak of the wildfire season will come early this year, maybe in June. Normally the peak time is late July to early August. He added that leeward areas have the highest risk of wildfires.

The below-average windward rainfall predicted statewide could also produce pockets of moderate to severe drought in those areas.

Kodama said supply systems dependent on surface water and rain catchment will be most vulnerable.

Going into the wet season, which ran from October through the end of April, all counties in the state were already experiencing severe or extreme drought, Kodama said.

The wet season forecast was for above-average rainfall, especially along the east-facing slopes of the state. But there was potential for lower-than-average rainfall in the leeward areas of Maui and Hawaii island, which was consistent with tendencies expected in a moderate to strong La Nina.

December saw the most rain and the month was “very wet over most of the state.” This helped eliminate drought across the state, Kodama said.

On Dec. 5 and 6, Kula saw nearly 13 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, weather service records at the time showed. Other areas on Maui also saw heavy rains with no rain gauge registering fewer than 2 inches. Rains and rushing streams knocked out water pipes Upcountry and flooded low-lying coastal areas and some neighborhoods in South Maui.

During the wet season, Maui County saw rainfall totals mostly 40 to 80 percent of the average. Kahului Airport recorded a total of 8.64 inches, making it the 10th-driest wet season, Kodama said.

By the end of April, severe to extreme drought conditions were back in the leeward areas of Oahu, Maui County and Hawaii island.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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