Maui residents who made desperate escapes from oncoming flames, some on foot, asked why Hawaii’s famous emergency warning system didn’t alert them as fires raced toward their homes.
Hawaii emergency management records show no indication that warning sirens were triggered before a devastating wildfire killed at least 55 people and wiped out most of the historic town of Lahaina, officials confirmed Thursday.
The toll is expected to rise as crews search scorched areas for survivors and those who lost their lives.
The blaze is already the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people on the Big Island and deadliest U.S. wildfire since. That killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Gov. Josh Green said during a Thursday news conference after walking the ruins of the town with Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen. “Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina.”
Green said “hundreds of homes” have been burned and estimated over 1,000 buildings have been destroyed.
“It’s a heartbreaking day,” Green said. “Without a doubt, what we saw is catastrophic.”
According to CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB-TV, he went on to say, “When you see the full extent of the destruction in Lahaina, it will shock you. … All of the buildings virtually are gonna have to be rebuilt. It will be a new Lahaina that Maui builds in its own image, with its own values.”
“What we’re telling you is we will rebuild,” he added.
Officials were unable to provide an estimate on the number of people missing. “Honestly, we don’t know,” Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier told reporters.
KGMB, citing authorities, said three large fires on Maui, including the one in Lahaina, were still active, but firefighters appeared to be focusing mostly on hotspots after airdrops conducted for the first time on Wednesday, when winds began to die down, were finally able to beat down flames. On Thursday morning, Maui County said the Lahaina wildfire was 80% contained.
Almost 11,000 homes and businesses across Maui had no power as of 12:45 a.m. Hawaii time Friday, according to PowerOutage.us. The local utility, Hawaiian Electric, said it was “asking West Maui customers without power to prepare for extended outages that could last several weeks in some areas.”
Hawaii boasts what the state describes as the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with about 400 sirens positioned across the island chain to alert people to various natural disasters and other threats. But many of Lahaina’s survivors said in interviews at evacuation centers that they didn’t hear any sirens and only realized they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.
Dustin Kaleiopu fled Lahaina with his grandfather. He told CBS News on Thursday that there wasn’t any warning about the fire and they left with only what they were wearing.
The smoke was starting to come through our windows. By the time we got in our car, our neighbor’s yard was on fire. There were strangers in our yard with their water hoses trying to put fires out,” Kaleiopu said.
William Bugle, 76, told CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti he was burned on his arm when the roof blew off his house and he was hit by red-hot shingles. “It went from like nothing to, like, I felt this heat, this tremendous heat,” Bugle said.
Thomas Leonard, a 70-year-old retired mailman from Lahaina, didn’t know about the fire until he smelled smoke. Power and cell phone service had both gone out earlier that day, leaving the town with no real-time information about the danger.
He tried to leave in his Jeep but had to abandon the vehicle and run to the shore when cars nearby began exploding. He hid behind a seawall for hours, the wind blowing hot ash and cinders over him.
Firefighters eventually arrived and escorted Leonard and other survivors through the flames to safety.
Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Adam Weintraub told The Associated Press on Thursday that the department’s records don’t show that Maui’s warning sirens were triggered on Tuesday. Instead, the county used emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, Weintraub said.
It’s not clear if those alerts were sent before widespread power and cellular outages cut off most communication to Lahaina.
Communications have been spotty across Maui, with 911, landline and cellular service failing at times. Power was also out in parts of the island.
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from Hurricane Dora passing far to the south, the fire started Tuesday and took Maui by surprise, racing through parched brush covering the island and then flattening homes and anything else in its path.
Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura said the fire moved so quickly from brush to neighborhood that it was impossible to get messages to the emergency management agencies responsible for emergency alerts.
Lahaina’s wildfire risk was well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfire ignitions and a large number of buildings at risk of wildfire damage.
The report also noted that West Maui had the island’s highest population of people living in multi-unit housing, the second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.
“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan noted.
Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. There are 65 firefighters at most working at any given time in Maui County, and they’re responsible for fighting fires on three islands – Maui, Molokai and Lanai – he said.
Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but they’re all designed for on-road use. The department doesn’t have any off-road vehicles, he said.
That means fire crews can’t attack brush fires thoroughly before they reach roads or populated areas, Lee explained. The high winds caused by Dora made that extremely difficult, he said.
“You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,” Lee said. “You’ve got to be careful – you don’t want to get caught downwind from that because you’re going to get run over in a wind-driven fire of that magnitude.”
Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for Lahaina residents, Bissen noted, while tourists in hotels were told to shelter in place so emergency vehicles could get into the area.
The mayor said downed power poles added to the chaos as people attempted to flee Lahaina by cutting off two important roads out of town. Speaking at the Thursday news conference, Bissen said 29 poles fell with live wires still attached, and leaving only the narrow highway toward Kahakuloa.
Tourists were advised to stay away, and thousands of people have crowded airports to leave the island. Officials turned the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu into an assistance center, stocking it with water, food, and volunteers who help visitors arrange travel home.
KGMB reports that Oprah Winfrey, a part-time Maui resident, visited evacuees Thursday at the War Memorial Gymnasium in Maui. The station says she’s one of Maui’s biggest private landowners, with more than 1,000 acres in Kula and Hana. It was unclear whether any of her land was damaged from the wildfires.
President Biden declared a major disaster on Maui. Traveling in Utah on Thursday, he pledged that the federal response will ensure that “anyone who’s lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, is going to get help immediately.” Mr. Biden promised to streamline requests for assistance and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “surging emergency personnel” on the island.
Mayor Bissen previously said officials hadn’t yet begun investigating the immediate, but officials did point to the combination of dry conditions, low humidity and high winds.
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