Maui mayor ‘not sure’ who was in charge at emergency management center as Lahaina burned

Three weeks after a wall of fire claimed at least 115 lives and turned historic Lahaina to ash
Published: Aug. 29, 2023 at 6:01 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 30, 2023 at 11:21 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Three weeks after a wall of fire claimed at least 115 lives and turned historic Lahaina to ash, Maui County’s highest-ranking official said he didn’t know who was calling the shots at the county’s Emergency Management Center the day the town burned.

“I’m not sure who was in charge. (Former Maui Emergency Management Administrator) Herman Andaya was still in charge. He just wasn’t present. He was in contact with his team. I guess by phone. I don’t know exactly how,” Bissen said, during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Bissen’s comments were the latest admission about the serious communication breakdowns between Maui County and state emergency management leaders on Aug. 8, when the nation’s deadliest wildfire in more than a century decimated the coastal town of more than 12,000.

For weeks Hawaii News Now Now has been asking questions on who was in charge of Maui's Emergency Command Center the night of the deadly fire.

When questioned about his whereabouts that day, Bissen said he attended a virtual meeting with other state and county leaders that morning to discuss the multiple brush fires that had broken out on Hawaii Island and Maui. But he wouldn’t tell reporters where he was the rest of the day.

“I don’t have that. I don’t have that for you,” he said.

HNN has confirmed Maui Memorial Medical Center started getting inundated with patients who had fire-related injuries around 4 p.m. that day. Meanwhile, reports were surfacing on social media showing people running for their lives and jumping into the ocean to escape the fire.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires

This is how Bissen responded when pressed about what he knew — and when: “I wasn’t on social media. First of all, I’m not going to speak to social media. We didn’t have time for that.”

He also couldn’t explain why the head of Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, wasn’t notified anyone had died until the following day. “I don’t know who spoke to General Hara,” Bissen said. “That’s my answer to your question.”

A reporter then asked Hara: “We don’t know how many people maybe died waiting for a response. You don’t think there was anything your agency could have done?”

Hara responded: “Personally, I don’t think so.”


He added, “That fire was so rapid and by the time everyone had situational awareness it was too late. Unfortunately. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Meanwhile, the Maui Fire Department confirmed its radios were working.

“We share the same dispatch center as both police and fire. All of our information goes to the same location so it can be quickly sent out to other locations,” said Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura.

“Throughout the initial two hours you’re asking about our radio communications stood up to a lot of the weather and systems that were failing around us.”

When asked when responding firefighters realized they were no longer dealing with a typical brush fire but a raging inferno, he said, “That didn’t take but about 25 minutes for our commanders to transition from field fire they were in to houses and start evacuating people over the radio.”

It’s unclear what action if any was taken in those 25 minutes by whoever was in charge that day at Maui’s Emergency Operation Center.