Firefighters waited an hour for equipment as Lahaina burned

There were warnings of high wildfire danger days before a deadly wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii last year, but the Maui Fire Department did little to set up crews in at-risk areas and then struggled to launch fire engines once the fire broke out. According to an analysis of the wildfires released Tuesday, the city began to be consumed.

Some crews who were called to work reported delays of up to an hour during the frantic effort to send workers to the fire line as they struggled to gather equipment for their vehicles.

An after-action report looking back on the Maui County Fire Department's response to the disaster, which killed 101 people, highlights the decision to continue with a “minimal deployment of personnel and resources” in the days leading up to the fire, despite warnings of bad weather.

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for the potential for high winds that could fuel fires across the island's dry grasslands. But firefighters and officials have no reason to believe the risk will be greater than on other windy and dry days, the report said.

The department added some additional personnel the morning of the fire, but even the additional personnel were not enough to handle the fire, which spread surprisingly quickly through the heart of the city, leaving firefighters struggling to maintain adequate water supplies and communications. .

In a separate review released Wednesday by the state attorney general's office, investigators from the Institute for Fire Protection Research described how county officials believed the situation was under control hours before the Lahaina fire broke out.

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Herman Andaya, head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, said he spoke with Mayor Richard Pisen that morning and Maui County followed Hawaii County's lead in declaring an emergency. The mayor did not feel it was necessary, Mr. Andaya recalled.

With two fires already occurring on the island, although not catastrophic, Mr. Andaya declined additional assistance from the Hawaii National Guard, according to her text message. “I spoke to the mayor and the chief and they indicated that they can fight this fire with the property they have … for now,” Mr. Andaya wrote.

He resigned days after the fire, amid questions about why his company did not sound emergency sirens.

As the day wore on and the crisis was building, the emergency operations center was “so noisy” with people talking, the mayor recalled, that the only information came mostly from police and fire radios. During the 6pm newscast, hours after the fire had spread, Mr. Bissen appeared, and there were only reports of old buildings being burned in Lahaina.

The Western Association of Fire ChiefsThe fire department's investigation recommended the department use new technology to monitor potential fire hazards and position firefighters and equipment in high-risk areas.

The report described the heroic efforts of firefighters, some of whom used their own vehicles, or carried victims on their backs as they tried to cross extreme winds, blocking evacuation routes and water systems. But there were dozens of areas for improvement, the report noted in a series of recommendations to the state and district.

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Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura said he's proud of the department's response, but believes there's always room for improvement. He noted that crews rescued hundreds of people and some firefighters struggled to put out the flames knowing their own homes were burning.

“Firefighters rescued people and kept them inside their apparatus for hours while trying to evacuate others, get them to safety, and put out the fire at the same time,” Mr. Ventura said.

On the morning of August 8, winds blowing off the slopes of West Maui helped fuel the morning fire in Lahaina, prompting a quick response from firefighters to bring the blaze under control. They spent hours at the scene but saw no signs of fire or smoke, so they left in the afternoon to go back to the fire station — only to find another fire in the same area minutes earlier.

Mr. Ventura said crews stayed at the scene of the morning fire for five hours, longer than normal in a brush fire. “Essentially they're forced to make decisions every day with the best information they have,” he said.

The fire started to spread slowly in the afternoon and soon jumped from the hillside to more residential areas. The department instructed emergency dispatchers to begin evacuation at 3:26 p.m., according to an after-action report.

Records show emergency cellphone alerts were sent as late as 4:16 p.m., and several residents said they didn't receive any alerts until the fire broke out near their homes. The report did not explore the reasons for that delay.

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After the fire spread, off-duty workers were called in. But the relief vehicles were not always fully equipped, causing delays of up to an hour as staff worked to line up the vehicles properly, the report said.

“During the height of the August bushfires, there were off-duty staff but insufficient vehicles to impede full deployment,” the report found. It recommended spending money on standardized equipment to prevent such delays.

It identified problems with emergency communications. Cell phones were down because of burned fiber optic lines and power loss, and radio communications were problematic: They worked, thanks to a repeater on the nearby island of Lanai, but the radio frequencies were overloaded, the report said. .

In all, investigators made more than 100 recommendations for improvements in training, technology, equipment and other areas. They called for the creation of a statewide mutual aid program so that fire departments in other locations could respond seamlessly to a disaster. They also advised the district to consider forming a team to clear vegetation in areas prone to wildfires.

Hawaii Electric and the county should consider relocating power lines and poles, possibly underground, to prevent downed wires from blocking escape routes.

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