Nonprofit head: Maui trying to bury 2018 wildfire report that offers insight into government inaction

The head of the West Maui Improvement Foundation says Maui officials are trying to bury an after-action report
Published: Oct. 18, 2023 at 5:52 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 19, 2023 at 5:29 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The head of the West Maui Improvement Foundation says Maui officials are trying to bury an after-action report that documents the county’s emergency response to another disastrous wildfire that swept through part of Lahaina back in 2018.

That report supposedly details what went right — and what went wrong.

And, he says, it offers insight into the wildfire risks government failed to act on.

For weeks, HNN Investigates has been asking different Maui County agencies for a copy of the report, but has yet to receive one. HNN also hasn’t gotten an explanation for the delay.

‘We just knew’

On Aug. 8, 2023, a ferocious inferno tore through Lahaina town.

Calls to 911 help tell the story. In one, a woman begged first responders to help her family. “Can you please send somebody to my mom’s house? I’ve got 10 babies there,” she tells the dispatcher.

“I went down to the store, I left my kids in the house,” said another woman in distress.

Five years before the wildfire killed at least 98 people and destroyed Lahaina, the town was in the crosshairs of another quick-moving wildfire: In August 2018, winds from Hurricane Lane fueled a destructive blaze that consumed more than 2,000 acres and 21 homes in the Kauaula Valley.

That community is just a few minutes up the hill from Lahaina.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

Former Civil Defense Council Chair Sherman Thompson said firefighters barely managed to stop the flames. The potential of Lahaina town being destroyed was very, very real,” he told HNN.

It’s a danger Joe Pluta has been aware of for decades.

The longtime Lahaina resident heads up the West Maui Improvement Foundation, a nonprofit started to raise money to build more fire stations — especially on the leeward side of the island.

“That was just way too close,” said Pluta. “We just knew West Maui wasn’t safe.”

The nonprofit’s fundraisers are the reason a fire station was built in Napili 26 years ago.

Pluta says he, along with other members of the foundation, had hoped the 2018 fire would be the wake-up call the county needed to start taking additional steps to prevent future wildfires.

In September 2018, one month after the Kauaula Valley blaze, the group sat down with incoming Mayor Mike Victorino and his emergency management manager, Herman Andaya.

Victorino was still a few months away from officially taking office.

‘We wanted to find out what went wrong’

Pluta said the purpose of the meeting was to advocate for a fire department in Olowalu about seven miles south of Lahaina. He says he’d already secured a plot of land on Luawai Street.

The non-profit was in the process of raising funds to build it and wanted support from the county.

He says members of the foundation were also in search of more information about the fire that nearly took the town. “We wanted to find out what went right, what went wrong,” Pluta said. “And then see what we can collectively do to make sure non of this stuff could possibly happen again.”

But he says the conversation didn’t go as expected.

When Pluta asked for a copy of the after action report, he says “Mr. Andaya was so concerned. He says you can look at it here in the office, but you can’t say anything about it to anybody.

“It’s all confidential.”

He added, “The impression that I got is that the liability to the county is way too high because of what is revealed in that report. And we don’t want anybody to know anything about it.”

He said although he read the report, he’s been uneasy about revealing exactly what it said. “I didn’t want to get accused of leaking confidential information and have to go to court,” he said.

When asked if what he read concerned him, he said, “absolutely.”

Pluta went on to say the county “failed to recognize the imminent dangers that were revealed.”

Where is the report?

HNN Investigates has spent weeks submitting public records requests to a multitude of Maui County agencies in an effort to obtain a copy of the 2018 Lahaina wildfire after action report.

The county said it forwarded our request to its emergency management office, but HNN hasn’t heard back. Meanwhile, a spokesperson with the Maui Police Department said she was “unable to locate the report within normal search parameters.”

HNN even put a request into Maui County’s Police Commission. Officials there didn’t respond at all.

The executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center told HNN Investigates there is no good reason Maui County should be withholding the entire report.

HNN asked Pluta what else he took away from that meeting with Victorino and Andaya, who resigned shortly after the wildfire that destroyed Lahaina.

Pluta’s response: “That we had a very serious problem.”

‘A built-in trap’

Pluta says at the time, the county didn’t have an evacuation plan for West Maui. It’s still unclear if there’s one today. “We’ve got some built-in problems. The way things are designed here,” he said.

“Lahainaluna Road, for example, we‘ve got three schools up there at the top, thousands of kids. There’s only one way in and one way out.”

He says nearby neighborhoods aren’t much better.

“It’s a built-in trap. And that’s what happened. Everybody got stuck,” he said.

It’s an outcome that was predicted three years ago in the pages of another document: Maui County’s 2020 Hazard Mitigation Plan.

The report says if any section of the road or utility line is damaged by a wildfire the entire system may be impacted, insinuating people might not be able to escape.

Pluta says after the meeting there was no follow-up from the county.

HNN asked Victorino, the former mayor, about his recollection of the meeting with Pluta, what he knew about the 2018 Lahaina Fire after action report and if his administration did anything about it.

He declined to answer our questions or sit down with HNN Investigates for an interview.

Meanwhile, we’ve been unable to reach Andaya for comment. He resigned citing health reasons as head of Maui County’s Emergency Management Agency a week after fire leveled Lahaina.

Today, the West Maui Improvement Foundation is more determined than ever to raise funds for that new fire station in Olowalu. “You can’t do the things that have been done here and not expect there’s going to be consequences for inadequate planning,” he said, adding about $300,000 has already been raised for the project. The total cost for the modular station is $2 million.

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