Officials have not publicly commented on the response time to the Lahaina fire, but residents are starting to demand answers.

Days after a quick-moving wildfire burned through Lahaina, killing scores of people and destroying a historic community, the details of the Maui Fire Department’s efforts to extinguish it remain unclear.

A blaze earlier that day had been declared contained just before 9 a.m. But fire reignited in the area a few hours later. The fire burned uncontrolled for hours until it had destroyed virtually the entire town, raising concerns that firefighters may not have been present in sufficient numbers or were otherwise outmatched by the blaze.

Exactly when firefighters responded, and how many arrived, has not been shared with the public. Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, estimated around 20 firefighters were in Lahaina sometime after 3 p.m. but found themselves unable to stop it. Two fire engines were scorched in the process, he said.

It’s unclear how many firefighters were working to put out the flames in Lahaina, but those who were there were battling ineffective fire hydrants and intense winds. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Lahaina blaze was the third major incident firefighters were tackling on the island that day. Many firefighters were likely tied up with the other two fires located about an hour’s drive across the island in Upcountry and South Maui, Lee said. Helicopters weren’t an option due to winds blowing at 70 miles per hour, he said.

Generally, when a major fire incident occurs, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, and it’s not standard practice for firefighters to hang back in anticipation of another fire popping up elsewhere, according to Lee.

“We use whatever we have,” Lee said. “We don’t keep reserves on hand and not send them to an incident.”

Lee emphasized he didn’t know the specific response time for Lahaina.

“But when you look at what was going on, it looks like they were tapped out,” he said. “They were overwhelmed. You’ve got only so many resources.”

Firefighters who were in Lahaina told the New York Times they had difficulty using fire hydrants that sputtered and ran dry. As the fire spread, it melted residential water pipes, depressurizing the system that feeds the hydrants, the newspaper reported.

The flames that burned through the community killed at least 93 people, destroyed some 2,700 structures, and caused billions of dollars in damage, Gov. Josh Green said in a video statement on Sunday.

Responders are marking buildings and vehicles with an “X” to signify its been searched for remains. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Civil Beat submitted written questions about the fire response time and manpower during a press conference on Saturday evening, but county and state communications directors handling the queries did not pose the questions to officials who were present.

Communications staff did not respond to a request to interview Fire Chief Bradford Ventura. Fire response times are regularly shared immediately after fire incidents throughout the country, at least for routine fire events. The Honolulu Fire Department, for instance, shares in its press releases the times that fires are reported and when crews arrive.

Ambert Coontz, a Lahaina resident who escaped after seeing smoke near her home Tuesday evening, said people deserve answers.

“Not answering them is just outrageous, but it’s nothing new and it’s what I totally expect from them,” she said. “It seems like it’s standard operating procedure for the state and the county in these situations where things go wrong.”

Coontz, who lost her home and belongings to the fire, said the failure to alert residents – either by emergency sirens or a first responder’s vehicle honking in the street – amounts to “gross negligence.”

Standards set by the National Fire Protection Association say the first fire engine company should arrive within four minutes of an alarm. But Maui County has previously said that it doesn’t consider that standard realistic for the island.

“The Department does not meet response time objectives defined in NFPA 1710 and does not view them as realistically achievable within the jurisdiction,” a 2016 Maui Fire Department report states. “The wide geographic separation of populated areas by ocean channels, mountains, and unpopulated land areas makes travel times a huge challenge.”

That document, called a “standards of cover” report, noted that times for processing calls and “turnout” – the time it takes firefighters to get dressed, grab their gear and leave the station – also fell below performance goals. A more recent standards of cover report was not readily available.

The Maui Fire Department has roughly 200 firefighters, according to Lee. Under normal circumstances, about 60 to 70 are working at any given time out of 10 fire stations, including one in Lahaina, he said. They cover Hawaii’s second largest island, which spans over 700 square miles.

Lahaina Fire Station was nearby, but it’s unclear how many firefighters were in Lahaina during the blaze, and at what times. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

Lee didn’t know if additional firefighters were called from off duty to assist. The Maui Fire Department did not respond to questions emailed by Civil Beat on Saturday.

Many residents and visitors who escaped the blaze have reported they didn’t hear warning sirens from the emergency alert system or fire trucks, and made a run for it after smelling smoke or seeing flames.

“Buildings on both sides were engulfed,” Alan Dickar, a Front Street business owner, told Hawaii News Now. “There were no fire trucks at that point; I think the fire department was overwhelmed.”

Retired Maui Fire Chief Lionel Montalvo told the New York Times older residents who recall the smell of smoke from the island’s plantation days might have assumed the odor didn’t indicate a serious threat.

“I believe that a lot of people stayed in their homes expecting the Fire Department to show up and put out the fire,” he said.

One woman looked out her window and saw flames around 2:30 p.m., the Times reported. When she called out to her husband, he responded: “Don’t worry, the Fire Department will put it out.”

In a phone interview with Civil Beat, former fire chief Montalvo cautioned against criticizing the fire department. In his experience, he said battalion chiefs move resources around to try to ensure the island is covered. But he echoed what Lee said: that resources go to where they’re needed in the moment.

“God bless them,” he said. “I’m sure they did all they could with what they had at the time. I hope they know that the community still supports them for what they did, for what they tried to do.” 

“Over time, we’ll figure out if we could’ve better protected people.”

Gov. Josh Green

Even if a truck or two had arrived in Lahaina relatively early, Lee said it was an extremely tough situation.

“You’re fighting a blowtorch. It’s wind-driven fire … That’s not normal,” he said. “I don’t think they could’ve done anything. If anything, they could’ve gotten hurt or died themselves trying to control something like that with such a small amount of resources.”

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said last week her office will be investigating the fire response.

“My department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review,” Lopez said in a statement. “As we continue to support all aspects of the ongoing relief effort, now is the time to begin this process of understanding.”

At the Saturday press conference, Green noted that it was challenging for responders to juggle several emergencies at once.

“There were multiple fires at the same time,” he said. “And the circumstance was greatly complicated with the heat and the speed with which the fire spread, destroying a great deal of infrastructure. Over time, we’ll figure out if we could’ve better protected people. That’s why we’re reviewing everything. We want to do that in a very open and transparent way.”

Going forward, Lee said he wants to sit down with the county fire chiefs and learn from this tragedy. There needs to be a greater focus on fire prevention, including clearing away dry brush that can serve as fuel for fires, he said. There also needs to be a conversation about prioritizing resources, he said.

“This could potentially happen again,” he said. “It’s not that easy to say: I’m going to peel trucks away from here and let these houses burn … Those are hard decisions to make.”

As for staffing, fire stations don’t have the same challenges with vacancies as police departments do, Lee said. However, Maui could stand to add two or three fire stations to cover its land mass, he said.

Unlike Hawaii island, Maui doesn’t have volunteer firefighters, and Lee doesn’t see them as a stable solution going forward. It’s a better decision to invest in an expanded professional firefighting force, he said.

“It just looks like a situation of being overwhelmed and running out of resources,” Lee said of the Lahaina disaster. “The only thing that would’ve made a difference is having more resources.”

Timeline Of Lahaina Fire Tuesday Aug. 8 - Wednesday Aug. 9

Key fire events as recorded by Maui County social media accounts.

Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023

5:10 a.m. - Power outage in Lahaina covering Front Street reported. (Source: Maui County Outage map)

6:37 a.m. - Brush fire reported at Lahainaluna Rd and Kuialua St. County of Maui Facebook.

6:38 a.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE:Honoapiilani Hwy between Front St and Hokiokio Road due to down Meco poles on the road." County of Maui Twitter.

7:05 a.m. - ROAD CLOSURE: "Lahainaluna Rd from Lahaina Bypass to Kuialua St due to a Brush Fire." County of Maui Twitter.

7:32 a.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE UPDATE: Lahainaluna Rd from Kelawea St to Kuialua St due to a Brush Fire." County of Maui Twitter.

8:27 a.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE UPDATE: Honoapiilani Hwy between Aholo Rd. and Hokiokio Road due to down Meco poles." County of Maui Twitter.

9:00 a.m. - "Lahaina fire declared 100% contained." County of Maui Facebook.

10:50 a.m. - Firefighter crews remain on scene of a brush fire that was reported at 12:22 a.m. today near Olinda Road in Kula. County of Maui Facebook.

12:58 p.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE UPDATE: Lahainaluna Road is now open." County of Maui Twitter.

2:20 p.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE: Honoapiilani Hwy is closed in Lahaiana between Papalaua and Lahainaluna Road." County of Maui Twitter.

3:42 p.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE: Lahainaluna Road is closed between Honoapiilani Hwy and the Lahaina Bypass due to Fire." County of Maui Twitter.

3:50 p.m - Fire Department “calls for the immediate evacuation of residents of the subdivision including Kulalani Drive and Kulalani Circle due to an Upcountry brush fire.” County of Maui Facebook.

4:26 p.m. - "Residents of Lahaina Kelawea Mauka Subdivision is calling for immediate evacuation." County of Maui Twitter.

5:03 p.m. - "Lahaina fire flareup forces Lahaina Bypass road closure; shelter in place encouraged." County of Maui Twitter.

5:57 p.m. - "Multiple evacuations in place for Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires." County of Maui Twitter.

8:14 p.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE: Honoapiilani Hwy, Lahaina bound, is CLOSED at Maalaea." County of Maui Twitter.

8:14 p.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE: Honoapiilani Hwy closed to Lahaina bound traffic at Leialii Pkwy, Kaanapali bound open." County of Maui Twitter.

8:14 p.m. - "ROAD CLOSURES: Multiple Road Closures in Lahaina Town. Do NOT go to Lahaina town." County of Maui Twitter.

8:41 p.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE: Keawe Street CLOSED from Honoapiilani Hwy to Lahaina Bypass." (County of Maui Twitter | Press Release deleted)

9:45 p.m. - Firefighter crews continue to battle brush and structure fires in Upcountry and Lahaina areas. County of Maui Facebook.

10:30 p.m. - "Mayor Bissen issues emergency proclamation in response to fires." County of Maui Twitter.

Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2003

12:21 a.m. - "911 service in West Maui is not available." County of Maui Twitter.

1:44 a.m. - "Residents of Ka'anapali Golf Estates area including Kaulapa Loop, Pu'u Anoano Street, Hakui Loop, and Wekio Place are to evacuate immediately." County of Maui Twitter.

2:31 a.m. - Road closures tweeted, including Front Street. County of Maui Twitter.

3:58 a.m. - "ROAD CLOSURE UPDATE: NO Traffic, except emergency personnel, is being allowed into West Maui." County of Maui Twitter.

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