Maui Fire Department report on deadly wildfire details need for more equipment, mutual aid plans

More than $5.5 billion in damage in August 2023 blaze

HONOLULU (AP) — Poorly stocked fire engines, a lack of mutual aid agreements between Hawaii counties and limited equipment hindered the Maui Fire Department’s response when deadly wildfires broke out on the island last August, according to a report released Tuesday.

The after-action report on the Aug. 8, 2023, wildfire in Lahaina and elsewhere is the first of two major assessments coming out this week about the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.

The Hawaii Attorney General is expected to release the first phase of a comprehensive report Wednesday that will include a timeline of the 72 hours before, during and after the fire.

The fire department’s report describes the difficulties and harrowing conditions faced by firefighters returning to the reignited Lahaina fire, including many resources being deployed elsewhere, structures quickly catching ablaze amid extreme winds and downed power lines making it hard to move resources.

The Western Fire Chiefs Association produced the report at the department’s request.

“Then the worst-case scenario happened, the fire hydrants began to lose water supply,” the authors wrote. “It is unknown if the sheer number of burning homes caused the water connections to fail or if the water supply tanks were not filled due to the early morning loss of electricity.”

The report describes a truck getting caught between downed power lines and the fast-approaching flames, and one crew member who was able to leave in a smaller vehicle to bring back police officers to help evacuate the crew.

They huddled to one side of the truck, one of them unconscious from a medical emergency, to avoid the extreme heat before they were rescued.

All of that happened before 4:30 p.m., according to the report.

During a news conference in Kula on Tuesday morning, Fire Chief Brad Ventura and Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Giesa discussed the report, which includes 111 recommendations in 17 specific “challenge areas.”

It also details what went well when the department responded in Lahaina, Olinda and Kula on Aug. 8, as well as improvements that can be made for future emergencies, Giesa said.

“There were firefighters fighting the fires in Lahaina as they well knew their homes were burning down,” Ventura said. “There were firefighters who rescued people and kept them in their apparatus for several hours as they continued to evacuate others.”

One off-duty safety officer repeatedly drove his personal moped into the fire zone to rescue people, according to Ventura, and other firefighters drove their own cars to the perimeter and ran and hiked inside to evacuate people.

“While I’m incredibly proud of our department’s response, I believe we can always improve our efforts,” Ventura said.

One of the recommendations is that the department keep its relief fire equipment fully stocked. Most of the department’s equipment is dedicated to primary first-response vehicles, and any extra is stored outside the relief vehicles when they aren’t in use.

As a result, it took crews as much as an hour to stock the engines and pumpers before they could be used, according to the report.

Other recommendations include creating a statewide mutual aid program and a statewide evacuation plan for residents who speak different languages.

Many of the factors that contributed to the disaster are already known: A windstorm battering the island had downed power lines and blown off parts of rooftops, and debris blocked roads throughout Lahaina.

Hawaiian Electric has acknowledged that one of its power lines fell and caused a fire in Lahaina the morning of Aug. 8, but the utility company denies that the morning fire caused the flames that burned through the town later that day.

The vast majority of the county’s fire crews were already tied up fighting other wildfires on a different part of the island, their efforts sometimes hindered by a critical loss of water pressure after the winds knocked out electricity for the water pumps normally used to load firefighting tanks and reservoirs.

County officials have acknowledged that a lack of backup power for critical pumps made it significantly harder for crews to battle the Upcountry fires.

A smaller firefighting team was tasked with handling any outbreaks in Lahaina. That crew brought the morning fire under control and even declared it extinguished, then broke for lunch.

By the time they returned, flames had erupted in the same area and were quickly moving into a major subdivision.

“Our firefighters are well-trained, they are well-equipped. They are basically forced to make decisions every single day with the best information available,” Giesa said of the crew leaving. “It’s 20-20 hindsight, but our crews did everything that they normally do on fires.”

Cellphone and internet service was also down in the area at times, so it was difficult for some to call for help or to get information about the spreading fire — including any evacuation announcements.

And emergency officials did not use Hawaii’s extensive network of emergency sirens to warn Lahaina residents.

The after-action report also recommends that officials undertake an analysis of the island’s cellular system, Ventura said.

The high winds made it hard at times for first responders to communicate on their radios, and 911 operators and emergency dispatchers were overwhelmed with hundreds of calls.

Police and electricity crews tried to direct people away from roads that were partially or completely blocked by downed power lines.

Meanwhile, people trying to flee burning neighborhoods packed the few thoroughfares leading in and out of town.

The traffic jam left some trapped in their cars when the fire overtook them. Others who were close to the ocean jumped into the choppy waters to escape the flames.

The report also describes the chaos after the fire raged out of control. Around 6 p.m., it says, fire trucks drove over downed power lines carrying evacuees to safety. One crew came across a couple who found an unaccompanied baby, and another pulled people from the water near the sea wall after they jumped into the ocean to avoid the flames.

“They had to carry some victims on their backs over downed power lines to a medical aid staging area,” the authors wrote.

The report says a repeater enabled radio communications to stay up despite cell towers and fiber-optic cable damage taking down the cellular network, but they were overwhelmed due to “a variety” of unspecified reasons.

Roughly 3,000 properties were destroyed when the fire overtook the historic town of Lahaina, causing more than $5.5 billion in estimated damage, according to state officials.

A similar after-action report by the Maui Police Department in February included 32 recommendations to improve the agency’s disaster response, including that the department obtain better equipment and station a high-ranking officer in the island’s communications center during emergencies.


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