Experts say those on the frontlines of the fires could face lifelong health risks, including cancer, PTSD and depression.

As Maui firefighter Kanoa Shannon raced toward Lahaina on Aug. 8, he listened to radio communications about the rapidly spreading wildfire and tried to picture what was in store for him and his crew.

But the true scale of the fire was beyond any of their imaginations. 

“Once we got to that side and we started to see it … it was a lot going on,” Shannon recalled. “Flames, smoke, low visibility.”

First responders like this Maui firefighter were confronted with horrific scenes as a fire laid waste to the historic town of Lahaina. (Courtesy: National Guard/2023)

Since that day, Shannon, who stressed he was speaking on behalf of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, has had the grim task of reaching out to fellow union members who lost their homes.

While first responders on Maui grapple with the aftereffects of having fought the deadliest wildfire in recent U.S. history, many are also dealing with personal losses of homes, belongings, relatives and friends.

Nine police officers and 18 firefighters from Lahaina lost their homes, according to officials from both unions. Two firefighters and two retired firefighters were injured. Two fire trucks were destroyed.

“Our officers are hurting as well, along with the rest of the community,” said Maui police Lt. Nick Krau, local union chapter chair for the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

“Some of them were working during the fire and were evacuating residents while just a couple streets away their home was burning down as well,” he said.

‘Wearing A Coat Of Armor’

Health impacts, both mental and physical, also will be long-lasting though problems may not manifest for years, said Pat Morrison, of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents firefighters across the U.S. and Canada.

“The psychological effect on them is going to be with them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “We’re going to be watching this population really closely.”

Shannon remembered seeing people running from burning neighborhoods who also appeared to be in shock.

But he was laser-focused on trying to extinguish the flames and the gravity of the disaster didn’t hit him until later.

“I think for us, we flick the switch,” he said. “We’re kind of wearing a coat of armor.”

Reality set in the next night – at the end of his grueling 24-hour shift. 

“When things start to regain control and everything starts to slow down … that’s when you start feeling how big the tragedy is,” he said.

Crews were overwhelmed as flames spread in Lahaina while two other fires were raging across the island in Upcountry and South Maui.

Maui Police Department Lt. Nick Krau is photographed outside of the Lahaina Post Office Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. Lt. Krau represents the police union. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Police Department Lt. Nick Krau, who represents the Maui chapter of the police union, said he’s frustrated that more wasn’t done to prevent the wildfire in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

With federal reinforcements and cadaver dogs, search crews are still combing through the rubble after the fire, which killed at least 115 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings. Hundreds more are still missing.

Krau went to Lahaina the morning after the fire devastated the town. 

“It looked like something out of an apocalypse,” he said. 

He was in disbelief. But later came another feeling – frustration. 

Krau was also there when wildfires ignited in West Maui in 2018. A fire that started in Kauaula Valley near Lahaina burned 1,500 acres and damaged or destroyed 21 structures and around 27 vehicles, according to Maui Now.

‘They Failed Us’

He said he wished more had been done in the last five years to prevent another catastrophic fire.

“I had hoped that we had learned more from that 2018 fire,” he said. “Knowing that so many people were at risk in 2018 and so many police officers’ lives were at risk while evacuating people from the area, it’s frustrating.”

Retired Maui fire deputy chief Lionel Montalvo was acting chief during the 2018 fires. 

He said he couldn’t comment on differences between how the fires were handled because he was not involved in the response in Lahaina. But he said firefighters who responded to the Lahaina blaze have mentioned they ran low on water. This was an issue Montalvo said his crews didn’t have to contend with in 2018. 

The lack of water was caused in part by the fact that many buildings’ water lines melted as the structures burned, causing the system that feeds fire hydrants to depressurize. But also, state officials were slow to approve a request to divert water from nearby streams.

“It’s something that you don’t think about because you expect the people in those positions to take care of it,” said Montalvo. “So it’s not something that a firefighter would be necessarily worried or concerned about because they just assume that the people in charge of all of these different things will do the right thing.”

Krau said he’s also frustrated with Maui County for not equipping police officers with smoke-filtering respirators, especially since they work in fire-prone areas. Officers rushed in without proper protection to help people evacuate, risking exposure to harmful smoke and toxins, he said.

“We’re going to do it anyway,” he said, “but it’s up to the police department and the county we work for to provide us with that proper equipment, and they failed us.”

Maui Police Chief John Pelletier, left, shown here talking to President Joe Biden, has spoken about how hard it was for his forces who had to recover bodies and face massive destruction during the fire. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Lifelong Impacts

The fact that first responders were faced with a wind-fueled blaze that overwhelmed them from the beginning will likely add to their trauma later on, said Morrison.

“The horror of that, and I think the event itself, the event of not being able to do more, not being able to save more, not being able to get this fire knocked down, is another area they will be thinking of,” he said.

The International Association of Fire Fighters sent a team of five peer support professionals to Maui, he added.

Since 9/11, organizations that work with first responders have placed extra emphasis on mental health support, and departments have been changing the culture around seeking assistance. 

“In the past, asking for help as a police officer was considered a sign of weakness,” Krau said. “We’ve become more educated, we’ve become better since then. And we now know that stress and expressing your emotions after a tragedy like this is not a sign of weakness, it’s a normal reaction to a traumatic event that we were a part of.”

A recent study of firefighters who responded to 9/11 showed that those who suffered personal losses were more likely to experience PTSD, according to the Fire Department of New York City. Many of them also developed anxiety, depression and physical health issues.

It also found that thousands suffered from mental or physical health conditions, including more than 2,000 who had some type of cancer.

Monitoring first responders’ mental and emotional health will be extremely important going forward, as will conducting early screens for cancer, said Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. Many were likely exposed to asbestos and other carcinogenic materials that burned in Lahaina. 

Shannon said that as a firefighter, he understands the risks of his profession. He also knows it’s important to seek help. 

He said since the fires, he and some of colleagues have experienced flashbacks. 

“When we don’t have much going on, and you’re not busy doing something else, you start to think and reflect back,” he said. “Nobody constantly wears that suit of armor, and everybody should be seeking mental health support at all different levels.”

Community organizations are hosting fundraisers to support the first responders, including ‘Aina Momona, a Native Hawaiian nonprofit that organized a firefighter relief fund.

But the trauma of what occurred will still be impacting Maui’s first responders long after the public’s attention has moved away from Lahaina, Lee said.

“I’m deeply concerned,” Lee said. “You can go through your whole career and not get something like this. This is definitely unprecedented.”

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