There are too few investigators and insufficient resources to find out who was to blame in most fires.

Scorched timber and cinder blocks are all that remain of a public restroom at Kanaha Beach Park after it burned early Sunday.

The Maui Fire Department, which extinguished the fire by 6.40 a.m., has yet to determine the cause of the blaze that left an estimated $150,000 in damage but said it’s under investigation and arson hasn’t been ruled out.

The fire, if treated as arson, may never be solved. The state’s fire and police departments often struggle to uncover sufficient evidence to find culprits, let alone prosecute anybody in the approximately 400 arson cases identified each year. Those include wildfires and blazes in urban environments.

“It’s pretty tough to confirm anything unwitnessed, especially in the wildland environment. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen though,” Maui Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro said.

A restroom at Kanaha Beach Park was destroyed by a fire. The cause is under investigation. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2023)

Of all the suspected arson cases handled by Hawaii’s police departments between 2011 to 2020, an average of 8% were cleared each year – meaning cases either resulted in arrest or were closed.

Hawaii County solved the most cases on average, with 21.6%, followed by Kauai with 15.16%, Oahu with 7.2% and Maui with 5.06%.

Part of the challenge is a lack of investment, a lack of training and insufficient personnel, problems that have taken on urgency since the Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui that killed at least 99 people in Lahaina and destroyed more than 2,200 structures there and in Upcountry.

Finding The Firebugs

When a fire looks suspicious, fire investigators from county fire prevention outfits are called in to find the source to confirm. If they suspect arson, the case is then handed over to the county police departments to investigate.

University of Hawaii researchers analyzed thousands of wildfires between 2002 to 2011 and found people started 99% of the wildfires. The data also revealed a potentially troublesome trend for arson.

Of the wildfires in the dataset that had a determined cause -- 800 of 12,000 -- about 20% were suspected arson, according to UH wildland fire researcher Clay Trauernicht.

The success of those cases ultimately relies on evidence that is often not there.

Maui firefighter watches fields near Pulehu Road with gusty tradewinds pushing fire towards Kihei.
A Maui firefighter looks on at a brush fire in 2019. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Witnesses and surveillance represent the gold standard for evidence, given the difficulty of getting much else after a fire, according to Hawaii Police Department Capt. Akira Edmundson.

That's one thing in an urban setting, but in cases of rural wildfires it becomes especially difficult.

"If you don't have the evidence or probable cause ... the prosecutor's not going to take it," Edmundson said.

So even if suspicions persist but there's not enough evidence or time to investigate, cases are dropped as priorities shift to fire prevention bureaus' myriad other tasks.

Big Island Fire Chief Kazuo Todd says he had several cases like that during his six years as an investigator.

 “I did investigate quite a lot of wildfires," Todd said. "I could 100% tell you the cause for one: That’s because I found the Molotov cocktail."

Wildfires also are influenced by the environment and weather in a way structures may not be.

"It's not often you have a clear point of origin," Todd said.

That includes other potential ignitions, such as vehicles’ exhausts and catalytic converters, cigarettes, trash and even curved glass, among many others.

Honolulu Fire Department investigators typically probe up to 175 fires annually, according to fire investigator Capt. Jesse Meyers. About one-fifth are deemed suspected arson.

Fire crews call them out to investigate fires of particular concern -- if someone is hurt, the destruction is costly or if there is sufficient public interest.

Watercraft and wildfires make up about 2% of investigations on Oahu. About 90% of the investigations are dedicated to structure fires.

"It's the highest one because of the chance of loss of life or property," Meyers said.

Determining the cause of fires and particularly arson is crucial to ensuring accountability for the destruction of properties and environments and injury or death. Effective fire investigation is also extremely important for insurance claims.

Investing In Investigation

A major factor complicating arson investigations in Hawaii is that it's the only state without a fire marshal's office empowered to investigate and even arrest suspects. State fire marshal's offices also facilitate training for fire investigators, so the lack of one reduces opportunities for such training in the islands.

That shows on the ground, as investigators in the state only know so much, when investigating fire, Todd says.

Reinstating a fire marshal's office on the state level may help fix some of the shortcomings in fire investigations, according to Todd, who chairs the State Fire Council, Hawaii's defacto fire marshal.

The national clearance rate for arson in 2019 was 23.8%, according to FBI statistics, compared to Hawaii's 8.1%.

Hawaii fire prevention bureaus are also overburdened with other jobs, becoming "jacks of all trades" who have to inspect for fire code compliance and educate the public on fire prevention, among other things, Todd says.

The City and County of Honolulu has the only fire department with dedicated investigators -- it has six.

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