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Maui wildfire report: Officials declined extra help before a deadly inferno engulfed Lahaina, killing more than 100 people

<i>Jae C. Hong/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Hawaii’s attorney general on April 17 released the first phase of findings from a comprehensive investigation into the catastrophic Maui wildfires last year that killed 101 people.
Jae C. Hong/AP via CNN Newsource
Hawaii’s attorney general on April 17 released the first phase of findings from a comprehensive investigation into the catastrophic Maui wildfires last year that killed 101 people.

By Holly Yan, Emma Tucker, Sara Smart and Cindy Von Quednow, CNN

(CNN) — A new report on the disastrous Maui infernos that left 101 people dead and $6 billion in damages reveals officials rejected additional help before the Lahaina fire obliterated hundreds of homes and became the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez released the first of three reports by her office and the Fire Safety Research Institute on Wednesday.

It comes after a separate investigation by the Western Fire Chiefs Association revealed a spate of problems with emergency preparation and coordination before and during the calamity.

While the attorney general’s report doesn’t assign any blame, it does give detailed timelines of events leading up to the fires, emergency responses and actions by Maui County’s mayor and the county’s top emergency management official – who has since resigned amid criticism over warning sirens that did not sound.

How the catastrophe unfolded

The devastating Lahaina fire was just one of four Maui wildfires that ignited on August 8, 2023. According to the attorney general’s report:

– Before the wildfires started, the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings signaling an increased risk of fire danger on Maui and specifically mentioned Lahaina.

– Due to concerns about the high winds and fire danger, two Maui Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) staff members were assigned to staff the Maui County Emergency Operations Center the night of August 7, the attorney general’s report says.

– The first mention of wildfire activity on August 8 came around 3:12 a.m. local time, according to the attorney general’s report.

At 4:09 a.m., MEMA sent an evacuation warning for Kula residents due to a brush fire, about 20 miles from Lahaina.

At 6:35 a.m., a blaze that would later be referred to as the Lahaina AM fire started “when a fast-moving brush fire ignited near Ku-ialua Street and Ho’okahua Place,” according to the report.

Firefighters responded to the scene just over one mile from the beachfront, “employing private bulldozers and water tankers to construct perimeter lines and soak the fire area with water.”

Around 7:38 a.m., “officers reported that they were completely overwhelmed with both traffic and pedestrian numbers” after high winds knocked down utility poles and power lines in a busy part of Lahaina. Residents also reported “a large piece of aluminum corrugated roof had blown off the residence … striking multiple vehicles parked on the road and was ‘wrapped up in electric and utility lines.’”

Around 9:22 a.m., a Hawaii National Guard colonel texted the then-head of MEMA, Herman Andaya, requesting an update on the current brush fire. At the time, Andaya was attending the Pacific Partnership Meeting in Honolulu and later said he felt the situation could be properly managed by experienced subordinates, according to the report.

At 9:30 a.m., Andaya replied saying there were two fires on Maui, the Kula and the Lahaina fires. “Seems that Maui Fire Department (MFD) has a handle on Lahaina. Kula is a different story,” Andaya texted.

The then-MEMA chief also mentioned that Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, had reached out to see “if Maui needed State assistance.”

“Spoke to Mayor and Chief and they indicated that they are able to fight this fire with the assets they have…for now,” Andaya continued in his text to the Hawaii National Guard colonel. “Thank you for asking. I’ll keep you posted.” The colonel thanked Andaya, which was the last message between the two, the report states.

– In the late morning, high winds crippled communications infrastructure and destroyed cell phone capabilities in the Lahaina region.

Around 1:44 p.m., an official with the Honolulu County Emergency Management Agency told Andaya that officials at Hawaii’s Big Island were activating emergency services due to fires there and asked if Andaya would be staying on O’ahu island. “Andaya advised that MEMA staff, the mayor, and the Fire Chief are not requesting additional assets like Big Island.”

 At 2 p.m., an update released by the state’s emergency management agency said the Lahaina fire was “100% contained,” with no loss of life or structures. The Kula fire farther inland had an unknown measure of containment, and local evacuations were underway.

By 2:17 p.m., firefighters reported the Lahaina AM fire had been extinguished and they returned to their quarters.

By 2:55 p.m., a fire known as the Lahaina PM fire “was reported at that same location as the earlier fire. This time, fueled by sustained high winds, the fire spread rapidly.”

The fire was reported as a flare-up from Lahaina AM fire earlier in the day.

“Embers carried by the winds ignited unburned grassland areas downwind from the initial fire location and continued to spread, reaching homes and other structures,” the report said.

The fire “overwhelmed the town’s limited evacuation routes, some of which were blocked by downed utility poles and electrical lines. At times, people were forced to use the ocean for safe refuge.”

– Between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., the winds fueling the flames were so intense that they blew firefighters’ helmets off their heads, “despite having their chin straps secure.”

By 3:38 p.m., “multiple 911 callers indicated that their homes, fences and sheds were on fire.”

At 4:30 p.m., the Maui County Emergency Operations Center was fully activated. Andaya, who was coordinating from O’ahu island with other officials after the fires flared up, at one point asked a staff member if he should return to Maui when told “multiple people look overwhelmed,” according to the report.

At 5:53 p.m., the US Coast Guard received a request for help from Maui police dispatch due to reports of people in the water at the Lahaina breakwall.

Helicopters were grounded due to high winds, and one plane request for search-and-rescue efforts was unsuccessful due to poor visibility from smoke.

The Coast Guard found the body of one woman and helped rescue 17 people from the water.

At 8:08 p.m., a MEMA staff member notified that there were reports of about 100 people going into the Pacific Ocean to escape flames.

– In the overnight hours between August 8 and August 9, as emergency officials received more reports about the deteriorating conditions in Lahaina, the state’s emergency operations center “went into partial activation.” The emergency center was fully activated later on the morning of August 9.

At 8 a.m. August 9, after working almost 26 hours on evacuations and other safety efforts, a Maui police lieutenant and his team started recovering bodies of victims. Many were found on roadways, in vehicles or in homes.

The flames ‘consumed more buildings than firefighters were able to protect’

The valiant efforts of firefighters were often outpaced by ferocious winds that fueled the flames and knocked down poles, trees and other dangerous debris.

The smoke was so opaque, one fire official reported zero visibility. Fire equipment became entangled in power lines. One firefighter had to rescue seven trapped colleagues, including an unconscious officer.

Some firefighters scrambled to collect more water, only to find none. In parts of Lahaina, “pipes melted/failed, and water ran freely,” the report said.
“Pressure in water lines dropped, and very little water was available for use by firefighters in central and southern Lahaina.”

As the Lahaina inferno raced across West Maui and to the ocean’s edge, it started “consuming more buildings than the firefighters were able to protect,” the report said.

The mayor responds to the AG’s report

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen issued a written statement in response to the initial report by the fire institute and attorney general.

“We understand the state Attorney General’s investigation and the hard work that Fire Safety Research Institute put into describing the nation’s worst wildfire disaster in modern history,” the mayor said. “Today’s Phase One report can help piece together what other fire-stricken jurisdictions have called the most complex megafire they have ever seen.”

“While the investigations and studies can be helpful, the pain, trauma and suffering that our residents have endured continue to be our primary focus,” Bissen said. “I remain committed to bringing Lahaina residents back home so they can take additional steps toward healing.”

Bissen said the report can help officials across the country better prepare for life-altering disasters.

“The most important part is how we prevent, how we mitigate, how we can prepare for future disasters,” the mayor said.

CNN has reached out to Bissen and former administrator Andaya for further comment.

Andaya, who was criticized for not sounding Maui’s emergency sirens during the wildfires, defended the decision shortly after the fires, saying he worried the alarms would have triggered fears of a tsunami and sent many residents fleeing inland “into the fire.

He resigned less than two weeks after the wildfires started, citing health reasons.

What happens next

When asked whether any Maui officials could be charged with negligence, Lopez repeatedly declined to answer.

“I’m going to focus on the purpose of this report. I am not commenting at this time on the actions of anybody,” the attorney general told reporters Wednesday.

“This phase one (report) is so that we can understand what happened on a minute-by-minute basis,” she said. “I want to be clear: The purpose the underlying foundation of this report is not to place blame on anybody. This is about never letting this happen again.”

The second phase of the attorney general’s report, which will outline the Fire Safety Research Institute’s independent analysis of the events, is expected to be released in the late summer or early fall, Lopez said.

A barrage of legal action is also underway, and Maui County “has obligations to more than 135 individual plaintiff and class-action lawsuits filed in three different courts,” the county said Wednesday.

Separately, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the causes of the infernos, including the Lahaina fire, which destroyed more than 2,000 homes, businesses and other structures.

Steve Kerber, co-author of the newly released report, said ATF investigators hope to share their findings into the causes and origin of the fires by the first anniversary of the disaster this August.

He said the report’s findings lay “the critical foundation for examining the policies, practices, preparedness, and response that will ultimately improve public safety and resilience against similar fire disasters.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Mike Valerio, Taylor Romine, Pete Burn, Jamiel Lynch, Norma Galeana and Brammhi Balarajan contributed to this report.

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