We’re answering your FAQs about the Maui fires, recovery efforts and where you can go for help.

Here’s your one-stop shop for verified, vetted information about the Maui fires.

Civil Beat is committed to covering this disaster in the long-term and digging into the circumstances that contributed to this tragedy, but in the shorter-term, we’re also hoping to provide practical help and answer common questions. Read more about why we’re doing this and find our latest answers below.

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State Senator Angus McKelvey hugs Paele Kiakoua during a Lahaina Strong news conference pleading for Gov. Josh Green to keep West Maui close to tourism Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, in Honolulu. More than 10,000 residents of Lahaina and Maui-wide ask for more time to recover from the Aug. 8 fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
State Sen. Angus McKelvey hugs Paele Kiakoua during a Lahaina Strong news conference pleading for Gov. Josh Green to keep West Maui closed to tourism. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

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Fire Facts

What caused the Maui fires?

The cause of the fire that scorched Lahaina has not been determined. Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives continue to investigate.

However, Maui County joined a growing number of parties in suing Hawaiian Electric Co., alleging the “destruction could have been avoided” had the utility de-energized its power lines on the island. Video footage from the day of the blazes show dangling power lines over burning brush in the areas where the fires started.

For its part, Hawaiian Electric said Maui County should shoulder some of the blame.

While a fire sparked the morning of Aug. 8 in upper Lahaina was apparently caused by damaged power lines, HECO said its crews left the area after Maui County firefighters deemed that fire extinguished. Later that afternoon, another fire sparked in Lahaina and ultimately burned the town.

The fires were fueled by dry winds strengthened by Hurricane Dora, which passed to the south of the islands. National Weather Service officials had issued a red flag warning, meaning weather conditions were ripe for wildfire.

Related reporting: Maui County Blames HECO For Fires In Latest Lawsuit Against Utility; Hawaiian Electric Suggests It’s Not To Blame For Lahaina Devastation

What is the current death toll in the Maui fires?

The death toll is currently at 97 people.

This is the highest number of fatalities recorded in a U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

Check out our special project “The Lives We Lost” to see their faces and learn their stories.

Do invasive or non-native grasses contribute to fire risk? How prevalent are these grasses?

Many grasses imported into Hawaii ignite and regenerate quickly.

Invasive grasses cover an estimated quarter of Hawaii’s landscape. For 200 years, the state has imported fast-growing grasses to optimize agricultural output.

Fountain grass, for example, is found on every island and ranks extremely high on a scale of fire susceptibility, according to the Hawaii Invasive Species Council’s Weed Risk Assessment database. Other grasses found here such as buffelgrass, Guinea and molasses grasses are also listed as high-risk.

Related reporting: Fast-Growing And Fire-Resistant Grasses Are Flourishing In Hawaii

Will Hawaii’s emergency siren system be used to warn people about fires?

Yes. These sirens “are an all-hazard alert system,” including for wildfire, said Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator James Barrow in a statement.

If you hear a siren, turn on the radio or TV for information and instructions, according to the state emergency operations plan.

Sirens may also be sounded for emergencies such as tsunamis, hurricanes, flash flooding, volcanic eruption or hazardous material exposure, according to the siren protocol.

There has been no change to the protocol, but the use of sirens came under scrutiny because of a decision by the former head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, Herman Andaya, to not activate the siren network during the Lahaina fire on Aug. 8.”

Can grazing animals be used to control flammable vegetation?

The key to managing could-be fire fuels with animals is using well-herded, domesticated animals in strategic areas, said Elizabeth Pickett, who co-leads the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, during a Civil Beat panel discussion.

That could mean goats, sheep or cows. After all, some invasive grasses that may fuel the spread of fire were brought to Hawaii to feed animals, Pickett said.

Getting ranchers onboard is important, said Clay Trauernicht, a fire specialist at the University of Hawaii Manoa, during the panel. Grazing contracts for fire fuel reduction could be an option for the state.

Ranchers “have amazing knowledge amazing experience, they care for these places and they’re one of the few allies in this sort of struggle that can do so at huge, huge land areas,” he said.

Watch the recording: The Threat of Hawaii Wildfires: A Panel Discussion

Are people from outside of Hawaii buying the properties of Lahaina fire victims?

Gov. Josh Green signed on Aug. 19 an emergency proclamation banning people from making unsolicited offers for properties in areas affected by fire. Anyone who does so may be charged with a misdemeanor and, if convicted, face a year behind bars and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

“Moreover, I would caution people that it’s going to be a very long time before any growth or housing can be built so you will be pretty poorly informed if you try to steal land from our people and then build here,” he said at an Aug. 14 press conference.

Members of the public receiving unsolicited offers should report the name, place of business, telephone number, and address of any person to DCCA’s Consumer Resource Center at 808-587-4272.

Related reporting: Hawaii Governor Seeks Moratorium On Property Sales In Lahaina

Can firefighters use water from the ocean?

Hawaii firefighters have used seawater to fight wildfires, but it’s not really practical under most circumstances, said Jack Minassian, assistant professor of fire science at Hawaii Community College.

Local firefighters dropping buckets of water on wildfires have flown to the ocean to fill their buckets, he said.

But generally speaking, “even though we’re surrounded by water, the ocean is not really accessible to fire equipment,” Minassian said.

There isn’t really a way for engines to draft water out of the ocean, he said. Firefighters would have to contend with cliffs or lava rock to reach the ocean in the first place.

Any equipment that comes into contact with salt water would have to be flushed out with fresh water.

Why did some houses survive the fires while nearby homes were destroyed?

Homeowners looking to bolster homes against fire may consider the following:

  • Clearing plants and bushes within the 5-foot perimeter of a home.
  • Fire-resistant roofs, such as asphalt shingles or steel roofs.
  • Clear roofs, gutters and yard junk.

Experts stress that it’s incredibly important to keep the 5 feet directly surrounding a house free of combustible materials.

“What folks in the wildfire business call the zone zero or the ember ignition zone, is kind of a key factor in whether homes do or do not burn down,” said Michael Wara, the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Wood Institute for the Environment.

Related reporting: Lahaina Was A Wakeup Call, But Forecasters Say Above Normal Fire Risk Remains What Saved The ‘Miracle House’ In Lahaina?

Getting Help

I’m trying to find a missing person on Maui. Where do I start?

The county has opened a family assistance center for people looking for loved ones who have not been accounted for. Visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Recovery Center from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily at 310 W. Kaahumanu Ave. in Kahului.

Immediate family members of missing people are encouraged to visit the center to take a DNA test to assist in identification, the county said. Make an appointment by calling 808-270-7771 or sending an email to FAC@mauicounty.gov. Family members on a neighbor island may call the Federal Bureau of Investigation Honolulu at 808-566-4300 or email HN-COMMAND-POST@ic.fbi.gov.

Anyone searching for a missing loved one may also call the Red Cross at 800-733-2767. For the Red Cross number, press 4, be prepared to follow prompts for the Maui Wildfires, and be ready to leave contact information for someone to call you back. The FBI is also asking people to file a missing persons report at (808) 566-4300 or HN-COMMAND-POST@ic.fbi.gov.

You might check the county’s official list of people who remain unaccounted for or the “Maui Fires People Locator” list that’s been making the rounds on social media — it contains the names of thousands who have been found and have yet to be located. Discussion about these grassroots efforts can be found on this Facebook page.

What sort of cash assistance can fire victims receive?

Fire victims are eligible for assistance including an immediate $700 per person cash payment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (more details below).

Another $1,000 is available through Maui United Way, plus $1,200 monthly for all adults in the affected area through the People’s Fund of Maui, launched by Oprah and Dwayne Johnson.

Where can I go to find housing?

The state is looking to connect more than 1,000 people and families who lost their homes in the Maui fires with people who have available housing units through its housing relief program.

See a map of available units and fill out an application for renters. Read FAQs about the program.

Does the state of Hawaii have the power to take my property?

Yes, according to David Callies, UH Manoa Emeritus Law Professor and author of the book “Regulating Paradise: Land Use Controls in Hawaii.”

“Under eminent domain in Hawaii, government can take property for virtually any reason it wants, and the private citizen has a right to compensation.” Callies said.

“The state and the county, and for that matter, the federal government have the power to exercise eminent domain, so long as there is some possible public purpose or public use, stated by the government,” he said.

My house in Lahaina or Kula was destroyed or damaged in the fires. Do I have to pay for hazardous waste removal and debris cleanup?

No. This work is free to residents.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will carry out the cleanup in two phases under a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

  • Phase 1: the removal of Household Hazardous Waste.
  • Phase 2: the removal of debris.

EPA teams will first survey your home, and then visit your property and remove
any hazardous waste.

Source: Maui Wildfire Recovery EPA HW Factsheet

When will people with homes and businesses in the affected area be allowed to return?

That depends on when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wraps up its work removing hazardous materials, said interim Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Darryl Oliveira during an Aug. 29 news conference.

Maui County officials “really want to stress we want to get people back home, the businesses in place,” Oliveira said. “Again, we’re going to do that with safety always being paramount.”

Related reporting: Toxic Debris From The Lahaina Fire Will Be Shipped To The Mainland

How To Help

Where can I donate money or supplies to help Maui fire victims?

Civil Beat has compiled a list of organizations accepting cash donations for emergency efforts. We’re also tracking donation drives and items requested, though most organizations are requesting money gifts to allow for flexibility in their response.

Remember: Only give money to trusted organizations. Get tips on avoiding scams from the Hawaii Attorney General’s office.

How can I volunteer?

Maui County and various nonprofit organizations are seeking volunteers to assist in relief efforts. Civil Beat has compiled a shortlist of places looking for a helping hand.

I have a spare unit. How can I connect with people in need of housing?

The state has launched a housing relief program to connect homeowners, landowners, landlords and management companies interested in setting up arrangements to serve more than 1,000 families and people who lost their homes in Maui fires.

Program application forms for property owners can be found on the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation website. Read FAQs about the program.

FEMA, Disaster Assistance and Insurance

Can I upgrade my insurance to include fire coverage?

Yes, but contact your insurance provider to confirm when you’ll be able to make the switch. It’s not unusual for insurers to put moratoriums on new policies in place in areas that are experiencing or have recently experienced a natural disaster, according to Janet Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry association.

But as fires on Maui are contained or nearing containment, you may be able to put in your request now.

Related reporting: Will The Maui Wildfires Cause Insurance Companies To Rethink Coverage In Hawaii?

I lost my job as a result of the fires. How can I seek disaster unemployment insurance?

Call the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations at 808-762-5751 or 833-901-2272.

Call center hours were extended from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily as of Aug. 15.

I just lost my home, car or belongings in the Maui fires. What should I do?

First, file a claim immediately if you have insurance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While federal assistance may still be available to you, FEMA doesn’t cover losses that insurance already takes care of.

How do I apply for FEMA disaster assistance?

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials activated assistance for victims of wildfires in Hawaii on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.

The fastest way to get help is by applying for assistance at disasterassistance.gov, according to FEMA. You can also sign up using FEMA’s mobile app or by calling its helpline at 800-621-3362.

There is no charge for applying for assistance or, if necessary, an assessment made by a FEMA inspector.

🆕 How can I appeal a FEMA decision deeming me ineligible for assistance?

It’s your right to appeal a rejection, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. You may still be eligible to receive FEMA assistance, but you could need to provide additional information.

Appeals must be submitted within 60 days of the date on your determination letter. Be sure to include:

  • A written explanation of why you disagree with FEMA’s determination.
  • Your full name.
  • Your current address.
  • The address of your damaged home.

Additionally, every page of your appeal should include:

  • The nine-digit FEMA application number that’s at the top of your determination letter.
  • The FEMA disaster declaration number for Hawaii (DR-4724-HI).
  • Your signature.
  • The date.

And if someone else is submitting the appeal for you, ensure they sign your appeal, too. You must also include a signed statement giving them the authority to submit your appeal.

To submit your written appeal, you may:

  • Upload it to your disasterassistance.gov account.
  • Mail it, addressed to FEMA Individuals & Households Program, National Processing Center, P.O. Box 10055, Hyattsville, MD 20782-8055.
  • Fax it to 800-827-8112.

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency

Do most home/car insurance policies cover wildfire damage?

Always check your policy to confirm, but almost all homeowners insurance covers fire damage, said Zachary Allinger, agency manager of the Allstate Insurance office in Kihei.

It’s a different story when it comes to cars.

If you carry comprehensive auto insurance — which is what most people carry on newer cars — you’re set, Allinger said.

But if you carry the minimum level of auto insurance required by the state of Hawaii, you won’t be covered, Allinger said. Even if that’s the case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency should still be able to help you out.

Vehicles such as cars and boats are typically excluded from homeowners insurance, so be sure to separately follow up on those items.

Will FEMA try to take my property?

This rumor has been making the rounds on social media, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency can’t seize your property.

Inspectors may be sent to your home (at no cost to you) to confirm it was damaged and decide what kind of assistance you’re eligible for. “If the results of the inspection deem your home to be uninhabitable, that information is only used to determine the amount of FEMA assistance you may receive to make your home safe, sanitary and functional,” FEMA said on its website.

How does the initial $700 payment from FEMA work?

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants do not usually have to be paid back, according to the agency. The exception would be if you already have insurance covering temporary housing but that payment is delayed, and you ask FEMA to advance you money in the meantime. Pay FEMA back when your insurance settlement comes in.

The U.S. Small Business Administration offers renters $100,000 loans. People looking to repair or replace damaged real estate may apply for disaster loans up to $500,000, in addition to whatever reimbursement they get through insurance. An extra $100,000 is available for destroyed properties, including cars.

Interest rates can be as low as 2.5% and payments may be deferred for the first year of the loan. Interest rates for businesses are as low as 4%. Read more details on these loans from the SBA.

Related reporting: Maui Residents Finally Have Local Access To Federal Relief Programs

I’m an immigrant. Am I eligible for FEMA assistance? Will this hurt my plans to stay in the country?

Yes, you’re still eligible to apply. More details from the Federal Emergency Management Agency here.

Short-term, emergency disaster assistance does not signal to immigration officials that you’re likely to become a public charge, or depend on the government for assistance, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security rules.

Get information about more questions and rumors about FEMA on the agency’s website.


Where will fire cleanup debris end up?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will collect debris and ship it to landfills on the mainland as part of the first phase of Lahaina cleanup efforts, for the first eight to 12 weeks after the fire. That includes hazardous household waste items such as batteries, partially intact asbestos and propane tanks that pose an immediate threat to cleanup crews.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will lead cleanup phase two to collect contaminated ash and soil, but it’s unclear where that waste will end up.

Related reporting: Toxic Debris From The Lahaina Fire Will Be Shipped To The Mainland

Which businesses in West Maui have reopened?

Locals are keeping a running tally of businesses in the Lahaina, Kaanapali and Honokowai areas. See what’s open, according to this community spreadsheet.

🆕 What is the Maui Strong Fund? Where are donations going?

The Maui Strong Fund, overseen by the Hawaii Community Foundation, was activated the day after the Maui fires with $1 million combining $170,000 in preexisting funds with $830,000 in donations that included:

  • $500,000 from the Omiydar Ohana Fund
  • $100,000 from the Goodfellow Bros.
  • $50,000 from Hawai‘i Life
  • $25,000 from the Cooke Foundation
  • $25,000 from Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design
  • $130,000 in anonymous donations

The fund raised nearly $140 million as of mid-October. It disbursed more than $25 million in grants to nonprofits and state-based organizations to address immediate needs and provide relief to survivors.

Over the next two to three years, the fund plans to provide grants for recovery and resiliency programs, including organizations committed to supporting or creating affordable housing, fresh water resources and early learning initiatives.

Related reporting: How Will The Maui Strong Fund Be Spent?


Can I visit Maui? Should I cancel my trip to Hawaii?

West Maui reopened to guests on Oct. 8, two months after the fires. Gov. Josh Green said shortly before reopening that he expected tourism to pick up in the coming months.

Many small businesses on Maui and workers in the tourism industry have encouraged tourists to keep travel plans amid a drop-off in travel that some say has hurt local workers. Maui’s economy lost an estimated $13 million daily in the aftermath of the fires, according to a report by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

“We want people to travel to the state to the extent that they’re not impacting the hard work that these extraordinary people are doing” with West Maui recovery efforts, Gov. Josh Green said during an Aug. 17 news conference.

Still, more than 14,000 signed a petition imploring the governor to delay the reopening of West Maui to tourism. Some said the Oct. 8 date was too soon to invite fun-seeking vacationers back to an area that has been deeply traumatized and is still in mourning.

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Civil Beat staffers Thomas Heaton, Matthew Leonard and Allan Kew contributed to this resource.

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