Local leaders say they were caught by surprise because the scale of Tuesday’s fire was unprecedented. But the warning has been sounded for years.

Neither Maui’s fire chief nor its top emergency management official were on the Valley Isle on Tuesday despite the wildfires there being well underway. 

Further, on Thursday county officials couldn’t or wouldn’t say when or if the evacuation order for Lahaina was issued or how those plans had unfolded two nights earlier when fire swiftly consumed the town, leaving at least 55 people confirmed dead.

Maui authorities would not give a timeline when a reporter asked them to clarify at a press conference Thursday.

Maui’s fire chief, Bradford Ventura, said in that press briefing that the fire reached Lahaina so quickly that residents of the first neighborhood it hit “were basically self-evacuating with fairly little notice.”

When fires started Tuesday, the Maui County Emergency Operation Center had two people on duty. That was increased during the day, but Maui officials were unable to pinpoint when it was fully activated. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

“The fire that day was so quick, it moved so quickly, that from where it started in the brush and moved into the neighborhood, communications back to those who make those notifications, was physically nearly impossible,” the Maui chief said Thursday. 

Ventura, however, was off island during the blaze and didn’t return to Maui until the morning after, on Wednesday, according to Maui County Communications Director Mahina Martin. Martin wouldn’t say where Ventura had been.

Meanwhile, Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya was also off island and did not return to Maui until Tuesday night at the earliest, Martin confirmed. Andaya was on Oahu on Tuesday, she added, when the wildfires on Maui were already well underway.

Andaya’s agency — not the Maui Fire Department — was responsible for any evacuation order, Ventura said at Thursday’s press conference, which Andaya did not attend. Martin said Andaya was in Maui’s emergency operations center during that media briefing.

Those details emerged as local officials and the public continue to assess the devastation and loss of life in Lahaina — as well as how Hawaii’s worst natural disaster in more than 60 years unfolded.

Rolando Bumanglag, 65, digs for his passport and other important papers Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina. He thinks it would be in this area of his large house because his room was on the second floor. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Rolando Bumanglag, 65, digs for his passport and other important papers Thursday in Lahaina. He thinks it would be in this area of his large house because his room was on the second floor, which no longer exists. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In the aftermath, state leaders have said they were caught by surprise and unprepared for the fire that tore through the historic West Maui community because the islands had never encountered such an unusual event, in which the fire-generating winds of a hurricane passing hundreds of miles to the south helped destroy an entire town.

Hawaii has seen wildfires fueled by prior hurricanes passing offshore, and researchers have warned that the phenomenon deserved further attention.

At Thursday’s press briefing, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen also said he wasn’t sure whether the fast-moving flames prevented an alarm system from warning the residents there to evacuate.

He added that visitors staying at the hotels north of the historic town, in Kaanapali, were asked to shelter in place in order to help emergency vehicles get into Lahaina. Some 29 power poles had fallen across roads in the area, stifling access to the fire zone, Bissen said.

Those poles were still energized, he added.

It’s not clear whether Hawaiian Electric Co., which includes Maui Electric Co., had protocols in place to shut down power beforehand when a red flag warning for high winds is issued. Power shutoffs have become a standard tool in preventing wildfires during dangerous weather in places like California.

Representatives of the company did not respond Thursday to a request for comment, and the cause of Tuesday’s fires still hasn’t been determined.

Aerial view of the destruction of Lahaina town and Lahaina Harbor is seen Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
The harbor at Lahaina town was also seriously damaged by the fast-moving blaze. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

A Warning From Hurricane Lane

Hawaii leaders have said they were caught entirely by surprise by the devastation in Lahaina and the way in which it unfolded. But the idea that a wildfire came as a surprise bristles those who have forecast them for a decade, such as University of Hawaii wildland fire specialist Clay Trauernicht.

The brunt of the blame has been given to high winds associated with Hurricane Dora as it passed 500 miles to the south, but the wind was only one of the root causes.

“This all comes down to fuel management, and that’s what’s so gut-wrenching about this. It didn’t have to be this bad,” Trauernicht said Thursday. “We could have given our firefighters a chance to slow this thing down.” 

The reality is that for the fires Maui has just experienced, the actions that needed to take place — managing Hawaii’s grassy fuels — needed to be taken “months, if not years” ago, he said.

At a separate press briefing held Wednesday morning, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said, “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.”

But Hawaii did see a similar situation in 2018 when the state narrowly avoided a direct hit by Hurricane Lane. That powerful cyclone still managed to inundate Hawaii island with flooding — and it whipped up wildfires that burned some 3,000 acres across Maui and Oahu.

Satellite photos comparing downtown Lahaina and nearby neighborhoods on June 25, and after this week’s wildfires. (data.usatoday.com/fires)

When asked about the Lane-fueled fires Thursday and whether the state made any changes in response to them, Gov. Josh Green noted that the Lane fires did not destroy any towns.

“We’ve never experienced a wildfire that affected a city like this, so this is something we’ve not experienced before,” he said.

“We have experienced wildfires across the state and they’ve been tragic, but usually tragic in open space,” Green said.

“The Lahaina tragedy was very difficult to anticipate, especially because it came in the night with high winds. But that does not mean that we won’t do everything we can in the future to stop this,” he added.

The fires fueled by Lane prompted a team of six researchers based at the University of Hawaii and the East West Center, including Trauernicht, to publish a research article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society two years after that storm titled “Fire and Rain: The Legacy of Hurricane Lane in Hawaii.”

The researchers highlighted the risks of compounding hazards that would be associated with hurricane events in Hawaii and said that further research was needed as to whether hurricane-fire events were going to become more frequent. “A complete understating of these factors is critical to understanding the vulnerability of people and resources exposed during a severe weather event,” they said.

A crew works on utilities Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Lahaina. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said that live electricity poles hampered efforts to evacuate Lahaina. Hawaiian Electric did not respond to requests for comment on whether it had protocols for power shutoffs during extreme weather events. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The research article generated a lot of interest among scientists, said co-author Ryan Longman, a climate scientist based at the East West Center. He said that didn’t know whether any policy makers had paid attention to the team’s conclusions.

Trauernicht, meanwhile, said that the reality was that the previous fires were contained only through the hard work of an under-resourced sector. “Fires have been running right up to the edge of these communities and the firefighters have been doing an amazing job.”

But the firefighters are not helped by the proliferation of invasive species of grasses that have largely gone unmanaged. They stoke and fuel the fires.

Green acknowledged that the state has long struggled to adequately pay firefighters and devote sufficient resources to curbing wildfires.

“It’s always a challenge in the islands, but this is going to be a priority,” he said Thursday.

Lahaina Identified As High Fire Risk 10 Years Ago

Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the nonprofit Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, also said that this week’s fire was foreseeable.

“We keep hearing from certain elected officials and other people being quoted in the media, ‘we had no idea, this is unprecedented,’” she said Thursday. “But actually, those of us in the wildfire community, meaning our fire agencies, our forestry natural resource management community, we have long been working to increase our risk reduction efforts.”

Graphic from the 2014 West Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan showing the Fire Environment Hazard risk for the Lahaina area.
The 2014 West Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan assessed the Fire Environment Hazard risk for the Lahaina area. The area near the Lahaina Water Plant on Lahainaluna Road is where the brush fire jumped into neighborhoods on Tuesday.

In 2014, Pickett co-authored the Western Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan, a fire hazard and prevention report that identified West Maui communities as particularly susceptible to wildfires.

The report showed the Lahaina area was in extreme risk, compounded by environmental hazards like topography, wind and seasonal conditions. The area also had subdivision hazards like density and proximity to wildland areas. These hazards were found elsewhere on the island.

“There’s bigger picture stuff that leads to the risk in Maui. Part of it is the unmanaged fields, inactive agriculture, invasive species issues,” Pickett said.

Hawaii’s policies, codes, enforcement and resources just haven’t kept up with the accelerated threats, she said.

The report’s purpose was to identify and prioritize protection measures, costs and timelines for future grant requests from state and federal agencies. Pickett described the report as a multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Proposed recommendations and action items included mapping power lines for future firebreak developments and coordinating grazing of fallow lands to reduce fuel.

Many measures from the document have been implemented — but not to full scale, Pickett said. While the Maui fire had multiple factors that complicated fire combat, more could have been done to prevent it, she added.

“We know there’s high risk. We know the science, we have the data, we’ve done the assessments, we have the community programs in place,” Pickett said. “It might not have been 100% preventable, but it could have been mitigated. It could have been lessened.”

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