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Better Evacuation Plans Needed, Maui Report Finds

Another separate investigation is ongoing by the Maui Fire Department and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into what started the fire and where it began.

A man walks his dog through the heart of a ravaged Lahaina neighborhood on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, after a catastrophic wildfire swept through the Maui, Hawaii, town. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Robert Gauthier/TNS
(TNS) - The four Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui, which killed 101 people in Lahaina, leveled 2, 173 structures and left 8, 000 people homeless, pushed Maui firefighters "to an unprecedented level of strain," according to an after-action report released Tuesday.

Among the report's 111 recommendations broken out into categories of preparation, mitigation and response:—Any response to future disasters must include coordinated evacuation plans, contingency plans, and firefighters and police operating out of the same command center.—The county needs more firefighters, fire stations, equipment and better technology. Official agreements to share emergency resources and manpower among fire departments should be set up statewide.—An automated communications system that alerts all personnel to major events and calls them back to work should replace the current system of phone trees, text messages and WhatsApp message chains.—Red-flag wind warnings should immediately be met with pre-positioning of firefighting assets.

A separate investigation is ongoing by the Maui Fire Department and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into what started the fire and where it began.

ATF's findings, in their entirety, will be attached to MFD's cause and origin report when the investigations are complete.

Commissioned by Maui Fire and Public Safety Director Bradford Ventura and produced by the Western Fire Chiefs Association, the 84-page after-action report is the result of interviews with 200 personnel and a comprehensive review of numerous data sets chronicling communications, firefighter and resource deployment, and other information.

The Lahaina fire is one major part of the report, but "the overall MFD system deployment is the core " of the discussion and focus. The "primary objective " of the report is to enable "future enhancements to mitigate the impacts of the next major event."

While the findings focus on the collective Olinda, Kula, Pulehu and Lahaina fires, "the recommendations can apply to any large-scale incident, " according to the report.

"It took us months to really get everything under control, especially up in the Kula and Olinda area. Containment of the fires and the recovery of all of our loved ones is what they (firefighters and first responders ) dedicated their time to during that period, " said Ventura, speaking Tuesday at a news conference at the Kula fire station.

One of the major recommendations was for improved evacuation plans, coordinated among all government stakeholders and clearly communicated with the public.

On Aug. 8, evacuation routes across the island were "obstructed by downed power poles, trees, and wires, exacerbating pre-existing challenges with accessing and leaving areas."

"MFD requested law enforcement to facilitate evacuations over the radio. Although law enforcement was part of the (Incident Command System ) structure, lack of co-location at Incident Command Posts was partly attributed to the dynamic nature of the incidents and available staffing, " read the report. "Collaborate with law enforcement and Maui Emergency Management Agency to identify key access routes and develop contingency plans. Upon identifying key access routes, collaborate with the Hawaiian Electric Company to relocate adjacent infrastructure, potentially underground, to enhance the safety of evacuation routes."

One firefighter shuttled people between shelters in the firefighter's personal vehicle, according to fire officials, and an off-duty ocean search officer drove "multiple times into the Lahaina fire with his moped "to rescue people.

Firefighters couldn't find available firefighting vehicles, so they used their own to set up evacuations "out of the burning area and ran up the hill to evacuate kupuna from condos."

The National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning Aug. 5 for Aug. 7-9 due to "lower relative humidity and high winds associated with Hurricane Dora, " passing about 600 miles south of Maui.

The WFCA recommended that Maui County create an intelligence center within the emergency operations center or MFD to continually "monitor current and predicted emergency events and facilitate the sharing of relevant data" and that using new technology to visually display potential trouble spots in electrical service and "identifying areas of concern before the onset of a fire" should be implemented.

The report recommended to increase staffing and "preposition appropriate resources" based upon intelligence briefings.

"Following the issuance of the Red Flag Warning by the National Weather Service, there was minimal upstaffing and pre-positioning of resources. Battalion Chiefs initiated upstaffing for some resources on the morning of August 8," according to the findings.

The MFD has 282 personnel in fire operations, 63 in ocean safety, 11 in fire prevention, three in health and safety, four in training, five in mechanic shop and 20 in administrative support.

The department operates 14 fire stations, including one on Lanai, three on Molokai and 10 on Maui.

"The fire was really an urban conflagration /firestorm started by a wildfire, not a pure wildfire, " read the report. "The core problem remains getting the public to raise their situational awareness and become part of the solution. Maui has the fuel, wind, temperatures and relative humidity, plus the urban interface to create a public policy conundrum. These factors, coupled with climate change, indicate the need to change past wildfire practices and policies. The series of wildfires that occurred on August 8, 2023, stressed the MFD and the entire emergency response system, but the system did not break. This AAR (after-action report ) has identified the challenges and makes recommendations for the future. While the AAR focuses on wildfires, it really addresses the MFD's capability to address any major incident."

It was released the day before state Attorney General Anne E. Lopez releases details of into the government's responses to the Lahaina fires.

"The Department of the Attorney General and the Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI ) did not participate in the Maui Fire and Public Safety Department's after-action report. We would reserve comment at this time as we focus on the independent comprehensive report and timeline that FSRI is releasing, " Toni Schwartz, public information officer for the state Department of the Attorney General, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a statement. "We appreciate the willingness of the Maui community, firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers to share information and experiences for FSRI's Lahaina Fire Phase One report."


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