Evacuations blocked and staffing failures revealed by Maui wildfire report

The report notes that the Maui Fire Department deployed all of its staff and vehicles to help fight the fire nonstop over the course of 36 hours

Graig Graziosi
Wednesday 17 April 2024 22:53 BST
Related video: Wildfires devastate Maui

An investigation into the disastrous Maui wildfires has revealed numerous issues with emergency preparedness on the island and coordination issues both before and while the fire tore across the landscape.

On 8 August, 2023, four wildfires burned much of Maui, killing 101 people and causing $6bn in damages. Questions arose after the catastrophe as to what went wrong and how the widespread damage and loss of life caused by the fire could have been prevented.

The new investigation, an 84-page report produced by the Western Fire Chiefs Association, seeks to answer some of those questions.

The report found that some emergency responders with the Maui Fire Department used the WhatsApp messaging service to provide situational awareness updates, but noted that not everyone in the department used the app, CNN reports.

Investigators also found that evacuation routes on the island were blocked by obstacles and evacuation procedures were hindered by communication hurdles.

A lack of preparation also contributed to the chaos on the day the fires broke out; according to the report, after the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning, there was "minimal" pre-positioning of emergency responders and fire-fighting equipment to deal with potential wildfires.

Four wildfires took the lives of 101 people and caused $6bn in damage
Four wildfires took the lives of 101 people and caused $6bn in damage

While the report points out the operational errors made before and during the wildfires, it also notes recognises the "island's limited resources," acknowledging that responders were "extremely challenged by the scope and scale of the collective incidents."

“After conducting over 200 interviews and reviewing numerous data sets, it is clear that the four major wildfires pushed the (Maui Fire Department) to an unprecedented level of strain. Despite this, the collective actions by MFD and law enforcement saved many lives and property across the island,” the report states.

Investigators found that "nearly every staff member and vehicle resource" controlled by the fire department has been deployed to assist in fighting the wildfires.

"The emergency response system did not break but rather it found itself outmatched by the extreme weather and fire conditions," the report states. "Staff members endured shifts of 36 hours or more and risked their lives in a valiant effort to stop the spread of the fires and save lives.”

In addition to its findings, the report also provided 111 recommendations for preventing or mitigating future similar catastrophes.

Among those are recommendations for fire officials to work with local law enforcement and state officials to identify "key access routes" and to develop "contingency plans" for possible fire scenarios.

It also suggested that officials work with state emergency management to develop a multi-lingual emergency alert system to inform tourists — who are often transient on the island and who may not speak the same language — of wildfire threats.

Damaged property lies scattered in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina
Damaged property lies scattered in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The report noted that the Maui Fire Department was already making institutional changes — like a fleet replacement program to update its service vehicles — in response to the wildfires and commended the department for doing so.

“We commend MFD for their swift actions to address the issues identified in this AAR, rather than waiting for AAR recommendations," the report states.

While the report detailed the fire department's response, the question over what actually caused the Lahaina fire is still without an answer.

“That is still under investigation with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives,” Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura told reporters on Tuesday.

The report was released a day before Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez is expected to announce the first wave of findings from an investigation conducted by her office and the Fire Safety Research Institute, according to ABC News.

Ms Lopez's office said the report would analyse a 72-hour period that covered the start of the fires through the aftermath of the incident.

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