Missed communications and blocked evacuation routes: New report details problems and heroism from Maui’s disastrous wildfires

An investigation of the catastrophic Maui wildfires that killed 101 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and left $6 billion in damages reveals a spate of problems with emergency preparation and coordination before and during the disaster.

Among them: Chief officers and some Maui Fire Department staff used “WhatsApp” for situational awareness updates, but not everyone in the department used the app. And there was “minimal” pre-positioning of staff and equipment after the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning prior to the four major wildfires breaking out on August 8, 2023.

But the new 84-page report produced by the Western Fire Chiefs Association also acknowledges the “whole island’s limited resources, which were extremely challenged by the scope and scale of the collective incidents.”

“After conducting over 200 interviews and reviewing numerous data sets, it is clear that the four major wildfires pushed the (Maui Fire Department) to an unprecedented level of strain. Despite this, the collective actions by MFD and law enforcement saved many lives and property across the island,” the report says.

“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. 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 was released a day before Hawaii’s attorney general announced the first wave of findings from an investigation by her office and the Fire Safety Research Institute.

Those initial findings include a detailed timeline of events. The next wave of findings will be released later this year, the attorney general said.

But already, the fire chief association’s report has revealed a plethora of problems and challenges – as well as 111 recommendations on how to help prevent or mitigate such disasters in the future.

What the 84-page report found

– “Calls and text messages serve as the primary communication methods to staff up vehicles,” the report says. “Some staff members were not contacted and remained unaware of ongoing incident activities. Chief Officers and certain MFD staff utilize the ‘WhatsApp’ application for situational awareness updates, but its usage is not universal across the department.”

The report suggested creating an automated system to notify all staff of a major deployment and allow battalion chiefs to take command vehicles home “so off-duty BCs can readily respond from their residence” during urgent events.

– “There are no formal County inter-island or State mutual aid agreements among fire departments, resulting in a cumbersome and slow process for relocating equipment,” the report says. “However, additional staffing during adverse times can really make a difference, especially for supporting firefighting operations.”

The report recommends creating a statewide mutual aid agreement as well as an “inter-island engine fleet program, where the State procures and maintains a specified number of Type 3, Type 4-6 engines for shared use on each island. Standardizing the model/type ensures consistency in training and operations across islands.”

– After the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning on August 5 for August 7 to 9, “there was minimal upstaffing and pre-positioning of resources,” the report says.

“Battalion Chiefs initiated upstaffing for some resources on the morning of August 8” – the day the four major wildfires ignited.

The report recommends creating an intelligence center “to continually monitor current and predicted emergency events and facilitate the sharing of relevant data” and “Upstaff and preposition appropriate resources based upon intelligence briefings.

– The public’s awareness and understanding of wildfire risks are also paramount. “Like on the mainland, staff, policymakers, and the public may not see the escalating wildfire issues until an emergency incident unfolds, as observed in August,” the report says.

“A myriad of studies since 2010 have delved into topics such as climate change, fuel conditions, and the growing workload demands for firefighters. Policymakers face the challenge of deciding whether public education alone will suffice or if there’s a necessity for policy and enforcement changes to better address the wildfire problem.”

– The report noted multiple challenges surrounding evacuations – including communication problems and obstacles that hindered or blocked evacuations.

“On August 8, evacuation routes across the island were obstructed by downed power poles, trees, and wires, exacerbating pre-existing challenges with accessing and leaving areas,” the report says.

“MFD requested law enforcement to facilitate evacuations over the radio. Although law enforcement was part of the ICS structure, lack of co-location at Incident Command Posts (ICP) was partly attributed to the dynamic nature of the incidents and available staffing.”

The report suggests working with law enforcement and state emergency management officials “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,” the report says.

In addition, the report says trying to communicate evacuations “to a transient tourist population that speaks multiple languages poses a significant challenge.”

It recommends collaborating with state emergency management officials about evacuation notifications in multiple languages

While questions remain, changes are already underway

Seven months after the calamitous wildfires, it’s still unclear what caused the most devastating inferno – the Lahaina fire – that killed 101 people and scorched thousands of acres.

“That is still under investigation with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives,” Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura said Tuesday.

The fire chief lauded his firefighters for saving many lives despite personal tragedy.

“There were firefighters fighting the fires in Lahaina as they well knew their homes were burning down at that very moment,” Ventura said.

Ventura was the fire official who commissioned the independent, 84-page report focusing on his department’s challenges and suggestions for improvement.

The after-action report praised the Maui Fire Department’s initiative in trying to improve.

“We commend MFD for their swift actions to address the issues identified in this AAR, rather than waiting for AAR recommendations,” the report says.

For example, the Maui Fire Department has already worked with law enforcement to review new evacuation software, made plans for upstaffing during red flag warnings and committed to a fleet replacement program, the report says.

“We trust that this report will contribute to the recovery process, prompting actions and public policies that enhance preparedness for future major incidents.”

CNN’s Pete Burn contributed to this report.

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