Emergency Response to Maui Fires Plagued With Communication Issues, New Reports Find

Katabella Roberts
By Katabella Roberts
April 18, 2024US News
Emergency Response to Maui Fires Plagued With Communication Issues, New Reports Find
Rays of sunlight pierce through the clouds above homes burned by wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 10, 2023. (Rick Bowmer/AP Photo)

The emergency response to the deadly wildfires that ravaged Maui, Hawaii, in August of last year, was plagued by communication issues, according to the findings of a new report published on Wednesday.

The report, commissioned by Maui Fire Department (MFD) Fire Chief Bradford Ventura and conducted by the Western Fire Chiefs Association, acknowledges the courageous efforts of firefighters, law enforcement, and community members who assisted one another during the fires in 2023.

However, it notes that the island had “limited resources” that were “extremely challenged by the scope and scale of the collective incidents” and that communication issues further plagued the response.

These communication issues included some staff members not being contacted via text message or phone calls which left them uninformed about the deteriorating situation and ongoing incident activities, according to the report.

Some chief officers and certain MFD staff also utilize the WhatsApp application for situational awareness updates, but “its usage is not universal across the department,” the report notes.

Elsewhere, the report states that there was “minimal upstaffing and pre-positioning of resources” after a Red Flag Warning by the National Weather Service on the morning of Aug. 8, despite the possibility of strong winds that could increase the chances of fires.

It further notes the island had poorly stocked fire engines, along with a lack of mutual aid agreements between Hawaii counties, and limited equipment, including fire hydrants that began to lose water supply.

Wildfires Caused ‘Unprecedented Level of Strain’ for Responders

Approximately four main wildfires were ignited on Aug. 8, including a devastating blaze in Lahaina that killed 101 people and scorched through thousands of acres of land, causing extensive property damage.

Authorities estimate the blazes caused more than $6 billion in damage.

“After conducting over 200 interviews and reviewing numerous data sets, it is clear that the four major wildfires pushed the MFD [Maui Fire Department] to an unprecedented level of strain,” the report states. “Despite this, the collective actions by MFD and law enforcement saved many lives and property across the island. Nearly every staff member and vehicle resource of MFD on Maui was deployed. The emergency response system did not break but rather it found itself outmatched by the extreme weather and fire conditions,” it continues.

“Staff members endured shifts of 36 hours or more and risked their lives in a valiant effort to stop the spread of the fires and save lives.”

The report came just one day before a separate report published by the Hawaii Attorney General’s office and the Fire Safety Research Institute also found that communication issues left authorities in the dark and residents without emergency alerts when the blazes struck.

That report found communication problems with the Hawaiian Electric Company, which is a subsidiary of Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc., and which has denied claims that its power lines started the deadly wildfires after county officials filed a lawsuit accusing it of gross negligence.

NTD Photo
A Mercy Worldwide volunteer makes damage assessment of charred apartment complex in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii, on Aug. 12, 2023. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images)

Breakdown in Communication Among Police, Firefighters

The company does, however, acknowledge that one of its power lines fell and caused a fire in Lahaina early on Aug. 8 but says it was 100 percent contained before more flames burned through the town later that day.

According to the report findings, power and emergency workers with the electricity company were unable to confirm that power lines were de-energized until well after flames had caused widespread damage.

Meanwhile, the report describes a breakdown in communication between police, firefighters, and emergency officials after cell networks went down, leaving law enforcement officials to communicate via handheld or car radios on closed channels that public officials and others could not listen to.

A limited dispatch center also had no monitor five or six channels at a time, the report notes.

“With no cellular communication, residents and tourists were not able to receive emergency alerts, communicate with loved ones and/or to receive incoming or outgoing calls/texts,” the report’s authors write.

Elsewhere, text records cited in the report suggest that the head of the emergency management agency, Herman Andaya—who was off the island attending a conference on Oahu on Aug. 8 as the fires intensified—dragged his feet returning, despite a series of evacuations and being informed by an administrative assistant that “multiple people look overwhelmed.”

That report also found that five days before the fires erupted, meteorologists had warned that strong and fast-growing winds resulting from a hurricane south of Hawaii could lead to extreme wildfire risk.

Officials have not said what caused the fires or who is liable as that will be determined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Fire Safety Research Institute vice president and executive director Steve Kerber said during the news conference.

“We’re going to continue this investigation, and we will follow it wherever it leads,” Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times

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