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A new report on the Maui wildfires cites communications breakdowns

Search and rescue team members work in a residential area devastated by a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 18, 2023.
Jae C. Hong
Search and rescue team members work in a residential area devastated by a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 18, 2023.

Updated April 17, 2024 at 6:04 PM ET

HONOLULU — As wildfires ripped across Maui last August, the head of the emergency management agency dragged his heels about returning to the island amid the unfolding crisis, while a broad communications breakdown left authorities in the dark and residents without emergency alerts, according to a report released Wednesday.

Communications problems were also encountered by the Hawaiian Electric Company, with officials unable to confirm that power lines were de-energized until well after flames had caused widespread damage, the report from the Hawaii Attorney General said.

It was the second of two major assessments out this week about the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century. A report released Tuesday by the Western Fire Chiefs Association detailed the challenges facing the Maui Fire Department during an unprecedented series of blazes, including one that killed 101 people in the historic town of Lahaina.

Attorney General Anne Lopez presented the report at a news conference along with Steve Kerber, vice president of the Fire Safety Research Institute.

"When Attorney General Lopez contacted us, clearly we were paying a lot of attention to what was going on in Lahaina and really had the same question that she had. How is it possible that something like this could happen?" Kerber said.

The new report says that five days before the flames broke out, meteorologists issued a dire warning that strengthening winds resulting from a Pacific hurricane south of Hawaii could create an extreme risk of wildfires across the islands on Aug. 8. "Confidence in the development of critical fire weather conditions this many days away is quite rare, and we believe that this warrants a heads up to you," a National Weather Service forecaster said in an email to Hawaii fire contacts on Aug. 3.

The Maui Emergency Management Agency posted to Facebook Aug. 6 about a "serious fire and damaging wind threat" due to ongoing dry conditions as Hurricane Dora passed.

The agency's administrator, Herman Andaya, was off island at a conference on Oahu on Aug. 8 as the Maui fires intensified. His call and text records show that he was getting updates from Gaye Gabuat, an administrative assistant. After a series of evacuations in Lahaina, Gabaut commented to Andaya that "multiple people look overwhelmed," according to the report. Andaya asked if he should come home to which Gabuat responded, "that it may look okay."

After the fire had been burning for more than five hours, Gabuat relayed to Andaya that flames had reached Front Street, a tourist hot spot in Lahaina. Only then did Andaya respond that "he better come home tomorrow."

By that time, multiple areas in Lahaina had been evacuated, a situation report produced by Andaya's own agency shows. Front Street had been closed along with the Lahaina bypass road, another key thoroughfare. In Lahaina alone, 29 utility poles were reported downed.

Fire crews had also been trapped in the inferno, according to staffing logs included in the report. Around 4:30 p.m., two engines were destroyed. A firefighter from one of the engines had to rescue the crews using a Maui Police Department SUV, according to the logs.

The preliminary report also describes a breakdown in communication between police responders, firefighters and emergency officials after cellular networks went down. Both the police and fire departments had to communicate using their handheld or car radios on closed channels that public officials and others could not listen to, according to the report.

Meanwhile, a stretched and limited dispatch center had single operators monitoring five or six channels at a time to keep up with what was happening on the ground.

"With no cellular communication, residents and tourists were not able to receive emergency alerts, communicate with loved ones and/or to receive incoming or outgoing calls/texts," the report's authors wrote.

They recounted how a police officer told other responders his daughter had been babysitting in a neighborhood hit early by the fire. Without cell communications he had no way to check if she escaped. It took two days for him to confirm she was OK and had made it out.

On Aug. 8 at about 6:40 a.m. MPD Central Dispatch contacted Hawaiian Electric to relay a report that a powerline came down and started a fire in the area of Lahainaluna Road and Lahaina Intermediate.

The dispatcher said no one was on scene and, "They are headed up there now, but it's near a structure, so we need to de-energize" that as well.

The Hawaiian Electric contact replied, "I think it just went out." which according to the report means the power supply is cut off.

From our previous reporting, we know that at about 6:37 a.m. the Lahaina Fire — about 3 acres - was reported in the area of Lahainaluna Road. Lahaina resident Shane Treu, who lives at 807 S Niheu Pl, is in his backyard facing Lahainaluna Road when he hears utility pole snap and he watches as downed power line ignites dray grass. He calls 911 to report fire.

The attorney general's report is the first phase of a comprehensive assessment that includes a timeline of the 72 hours before, during and after the fire. It says investigators relied on "all known available facts" related to the fire and to the steps that local, state and federal agencies took to prepare for dangerous fires.

It reconstructs a detailed timeline of the Lahaina fire's spread using social media posts, dispatch records, communications between emergency personnel and other sources.

Phase 2 of the report will focus on how Maui's fire protection system functioned during the emergency, specifically what conditions fed the inferno, the attempts to stop its spread, and the evacuation of residents. The report says the third phase will try to answer the critical question "How do we prevent this from happening again?"

"The tragedy serves as a sobering reminder that the threat of grassland fires, wildfires, and wildfire-initiated urban conflagrations, fueled by climate change and urban encroachment into wildland areas, is a reality that must be addressed with the utmost urgency and diligence – not just in Hawaii, but around the globe," the authors wrote.

Tuesday's report by the fire chiefs association described firefighters who carried victims piggyback over downed power lines to safety and sheltered survivors inside their engines. Another first responder drove a moped into a burning neighborhood again and again, whisking people away from danger one at a time.

Fire department workers "risked their lives in a valiant effort to stop the spread of the fires and save lives," according to the report, and are now "grappling with questions about what they could have done differently, a reflection that will likely persist throughout the rest of their careers."

Both reports describe the difficulties and harrowing conditions faced by firefighters returning to the reignited Lahaina fire, including many resources being deployed elsewhere, structures quickly catching ablaze amid extreme winds and downed electricity lines hampering movement.

Among the challenges faced by the department were poorly stocked fire engines, hydrants that lost water supply, and a lack of mutual aid agreements between Hawaii counties and limited equipment.

The fire chiefs recommended that the Maui department keep all back-up vehicles ready to go. Extra engines that were on standby for large incidents took up to an hour to deploy, according to the report, because they needed to be stocked with the proper equipment. The report did not say what they were missing.

Other recommendations include creating a statewide mutual aid program and an evacuation plan for residents and tourists who speak different languages.

Many of the factors that contributed to the disaster are already known: A windstorm battering the island had downed power lines and blown off parts of rooftops, and debris blocked roads throughout Lahaina.

Hawaiian Electric has acknowledged that one of its power lines fell and caused a fire in Lahaina early on Aug. 8, but the utility company denies that the morning fire caused the flames that burned through the town later that day.

Roughly 40% of Maui County's firefighting resources were already tied up fighting other wildfires on a different part of the island.

Cellphone and internet service was also down in the area at times, so it was difficult for some to call for help or to get information about the fire. And emergency officials did not use Hawaii's extensive network of emergency sirens to warn Lahaina residents. The after-action report also recommends that officials undertake an analysis of the island's cellular system.

The high winds made it hard at times for first responders to communicate on their radios, and 911 operators and emergency dispatchers were overwhelmed with hundreds of calls.

Police and electricity crews tried to direct people away from roads that were partially or completely blocked by power lines. Meanwhile, people trying to flee burning neighborhoods packed the few thoroughfares in and out of town.

The traffic jam left some trapped in their cars when the fire overtook them, and others who were near the ocean jumped in to escape.

The reports also highlight a vulnerability rooted in the dramatic changes Maui experienced since the arrival of Westerners and the conversion of land into pineapple and sugar plantations in the 19th century. When those closed in the late 1900s, the fallow lands became covered in invasive grasses. That and prolonged drought created a "volatile fuel bed" for fire, Tuesday's report says.

Roughly 3,000 properties were destroyed when the fire overtook Lahaina, causing more than $5.5 billion in estimated damage, according to state officials.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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