Unlike a hurricane, the fires ignited and spread quickly, forcing sudden evacuations.

Hawaii was unprepared for the wildfires that devastated Lahaina on Maui and other parts of that island and the Big Island, fires that appear to have been caused in part by a high winds from a passing hurricane.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said Wednesday he and other officials and emergency responders are focused primarily on saving lives, protecting property and evacuating residents and tourists. As such, there has not yet been any investigation into the fires’ origins.

But, while Hurricane Dora passed well south of the island chain this week, sparing the islands heavy rain and flooding, the winds — combined with low humidity levels and arid ground conditions — may have been a factor in spreading the fires.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke led a press briefing on the wildfires on Maui and destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the overall incident commander, said the National Weather Service had warned of the “red flag” conditions. He and Bissen spoke at a press conference Wednesday at the State Capitol along with other officials.

The theme of unpreparedness was stated by several others. Acting Gov. Sylvia Luke said that residents know to prepare well in advance for hurricanes but not for simultaneous wildfires.

“We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane which did not make impact on our islands will cause this type of wildfires, wildfires that wiped out communities, wildfires that wiped out businesses, wildfires that destroyed homes,” she said.

Jimmy Tokioka, the director of the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, agreed, recalling the preparations for Hurricane Iniki. The 1992 storm, which centered on Tokioka’s home island of Kauai, caused six fatalities and $3.1 billion in damages.

Maui County later raised the death to 36.

Bissen said it was unclear when the fires might be contained. Earlier on Wednesday, Luke issued an emergency proclamation to extend a state of emergency to all counties and to “discourage non-essential air travel to Maui,” and to order all affected state agencies to assist with the evacuation.

Luke, Hara and other officials reiterated that message at the press conference.

“This is not a safe place to be,” said Luke. “We have shelters that are overrun. We have resources that are being taxed. We are doing whatever we can. And the state is providing whatever support that we can to give support to both Maui and to the Big Island.”

The lieutenant governor expressed sadness and heartbreak over the crisis but also called for Hawaii’s ohana to come together to support each other.

Luke said she had been in constant contact with Gov. Josh Green, who was on the mainland for personal travel. The governor cut short his trip by a week and was en route from Boston. He is expected to arrive in Hawaii by midnight and to travel to Maui Thursday.

‘Search And Rescue’ Mode

On Hawaii County, Mayor Mitch Roth said that crews had battled three to five fires, “depending on how you count them.” He said the county was still battling three fires but others had been “pretty much well contained,” but also saying he was hesitant to call things “completely under control.”

Bissen said that at least three fires continue to burn on Maui, 16 roads have been closed, 2,100 people are in shelters and power was out for more than 2,600 customers. The county remains in a “search and rescue” mode, he said.

“We’ve had many dwellings, businesses, structures that have been burnt to the ground, mostly in our Lahaina neighborhoods and our Lahaina area,” said Bissen.

Because power lines and fiberoptic cables have been damaged or destroyed, Bissen said radios instead of cell phones and land lines are being used to communicate.

Besides West Maui, fires caught and spread under red flag weather conditions on Tuesday in the Kohala region of Hawaii County and central Maui. Both counties were largely able to keep the fires under control, officials said, but the situation turned for Maui in the evening.

The winds were so strong that helicopters carrying water to drop on the fires could not fly in West Maui. Bissen said the helicopters were in operation Wednesday, however.

Hawaii’s U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz attended the press conference. Just before it began they and Reps. Ed Case and Jill Tokuda issued a letter urging President Joe Biden to “act swiftly to make all federal resources available and approve any request for a presidential disaster declaration.”

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen spoke at a press conference Wednesday via the internet. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu is being prepared to house visitors from Maui. Ed Sniffen, the director of the state Department of Transportation, said it’s believed there are 4,000 visitors who are expected to want to leave Maui’s West Side, where the fires are concentrated. At least 2,000 others had stayed the night at the airport in Kahului.

“I think this is a truly devastating experience for everyone that has gone through it,” said Bissen, adding that the county will offer mental health services and trauma related care.

“This is a time for us to come together,” he said. “This is the time for us to care for each other in our county and again, accept the generous assistance that is being offered by our federal or state, our county and private partners. We will rebuild and we will again support each other.”

Luke called for residents and visitors to “have aloha,” warning that recovery could take weeks and months and that there are “concerns about potential riots.”

“This is really time for us to have a little aloha and patience as we work towards this disaster together,” she said.

Officials said that updates on the fires would be posted at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency website.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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