The large number of deaths makes understanding what happened in Lahaina a national concern, investigators say.

Investigators studying the mystery of what caused the deadly fire in Lahaina are turning to the public for help getting the clues they need to uncover the truth.

They are asking fire survivors to share their photos, videos and personal stories about the day to help develop a chronology of events that could lead to a fuller determination of what happened.

Understanding the exact causes of the blaze could also give state officials the information they need to craft new rules and programs to reduce further risk on Maui and on the other islands as well, the investigators said.

The panel of fire experts, all associated with the Fire Safety Research Institute in Columbia, Maryland, have been quietly working on Maui since late August, talking to firefighters, police and officials about the underlying issues that led to the Aug. 8 conflagration.

The entrance to Front Street in Lahaina off of Honoapiilani Highway remains barricaded after the Aug. 8 fires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The entrance to Front Street in Lahaina off of Honoapiilani Highway remains barricaded after the Aug. 8 fires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Up to seven investigators at a time, including retired fire chiefs from California, the Big Island and Oregon and specialized fire scientists from around the country, have been there during the past seven weeks.

“We got there very early because we wanted to be able to document all the structures that were lost and all the structures that survived before other people got in there and started altering things,” said Steve Kerber, FSRI’s vice president and executive director, who holds a doctorate in fire protection engineering.

Until now, the investigation has been developing under the radar, with few people on Maui aware that it was underway.

“I think we haven’t intentionally been quiet, but we’ve been trying to go about our work and gather information the best we can while trying to be respectful as possible to the loss that has been suffered and the trauma that people have been put through,” Kerber said. “We’re trying to create the least amount of friction as possible as we gather the information we need to put all the facts together.”

In the weeks and months following the fire, Lahaina residents and the general public have clamored for information about how and why the fires broke out, how they resulted in such carnage and what Maui officials had done during the critical hours that led to, and following, the disaster.

On Aug. 31, Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez announced she had selected the Fire Safety Research Institute to conduct a full investigation, saying she was committed to an “independent, unbiased and transparent investigation into government actions during the fires.”

In a statement today, Lopez said the investigation is proceeding as planned.

“The results of the investigation will be openly shared with the public and provide a picture of what happened and recommendations how to prevent a disaster like this from happening again,” Lopez said.

Lopez said that the investigators have been engaged in “tireless work,” and that their “expertise and reputation are unmatched in the field of fire investigations.”

The Fire Safety Research Institute is a nonprofit that studies fire dynamics. It is associated with UL, also known as Underwriters Laboratories, which sets safety standards and was created in 1894.

“The Fire Safety Research Institute is reputable, it’s respected,” said Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildlife Management Organization. “They are very familiar with doing investigations in disaster situations.”

Scenes show buildings still aflame a day after the fire swept through Lahaina. (Jack Truesdale/Civil Beat/2023)

She said the team has considerable expertise. Many of them regularly make presentations at fire chief conferences, she said.

“I think every one of those investigators has been in the fire service and investigation for more than 30 or 40 years,” she said. “These guys know what they are doing.”

The investigators are asking witnesses to send their images and videos to them, preferably including items with time stamps, so they can put the information together to gather evidence on what happened when.

Hundreds of people fleeing the fire managed to take pictures on their cell phones, creating searing images that have saturated social media sites in the two months since the fire, but the material is at risk of disappearing if it is not gathered in a concerted way while memories of the event remain fresh.

This evidence from witnesses is particularly important, Kerber said, because Maui lacks the fire sensors and satellites that more systematically gather data elsewhere, including on the west coast of California.

“We’ve got to piece it together by people’s experiences,” Kerber said.

Derek Alkonis, the group’s research program manager and point man on Maui, has begun circulating a flier asking for assistance that he and the team hope will be disseminated as widely as possible.

“We want to connect with the community and let them know our process,” Alkonis said. “People had incredible experiences. It’s important we know about that.”

This visual testimony, as well as the recollections of the people who witnessed what happened “are all very valuable to the process,” he said.

Alkonis, a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, has deep ties to the Pacific Islands. His mother is from Samoa and lived in Hawaii in the past and his uncle lives on Oahu with his family.

Pickett, who has briefed the investigators, said Alkonis is particularly well-versed on conditions in Hawaii, and that she believes the panel has been making all the right contacts throughout the islands to understand events thoroughly.

One person on Maui who is assisting the effort is Mahealani K.K. Strong, executive agent and owner of Insurance Associates in Lahaina.She is circulating fliers being distributed to the general population at disaster relief centers and is also helping to set a time and place for a public meeting that will bring community leaders together to boost outreach for the investigation.

Lahaina Insurance executive Mahealani K. K. strong is pushing hard for 1,000 clients whose homes and business were destroyed or damaged by the fire. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahaina Insurance executive Mahealani K. K. Strong has been pushing hard for 1,000 clients whose homes and business were destroyed or damaged by the fire. Now she is helping fire investigators as well, as they explore the causes of the fire. (Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2023)

“The community needs to understand what happened, what went wrong and how we can trust that it will never happen again,” she said. “Anything that leads us to an answer is a relief, even if it hurts.”

The biggest challenge for the investigators, she said, is that public trust in government officials has been shattered. She said that renewed trust will only occur when people are allowed to openly share their thoughts and concerns without feeling that they are being shut down.

“Ask anyone, they will say, ‘We don’t trust you,’” she said.

She hopes that the meeting will be planned with enough time for many people to be able to participate.

Kerber said that one of the challenges of conducting the investigation and gathering the needed information is that Maui officials “work through their lawyers,” he said, adding that Alkonis recently attended a meeting “with the police chief, the fire chief and their attorney.”

The study is being conducted in three phases. The first, which is ongoing now, is fact-finding, Phase 2 will involve interpretation of the data and evidence, and Phase 3 will involve preparation of a report that will provide recommendations and strategies for county and state officials to reduce the risk of further tragedies.

Kerber said that what happened is important to Lahaina but also is a matter of nationwide concern because this wildfire had the largest number of deaths in a century.

“You don’t have 100-year-loss fires very often, and if we don’t learn from them we would absolutely be doing a disservice to the poor people that we lost,” Kerber said.

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

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author