‘It was a failure’: Member of wildfire advisory team says Maui can’t miss key lessons again
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A member of the advisory team helping guide Lahaina’s recovery is calling on state and county leaders to bolster Maui’s disaster plan to prevent future disasters.
He says after previous wildfires the government failed to recognize flaws in its emergency planning and response allowing some of the same problems to play out again the day Lahaina burned.
Five years ago, for example, there was another destructive wildfire that came extremely close to incinerating Lahaina town. Reports confirm that some of the strategies that failed during that firefight were attempted again on Aug. 8 — and that the same failures were repeated.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think anybody understands the magnitude of what just happened,” said Rick Nava, a member of the Lahaina Advisory Team who is also serving as a community spokesperson to help guide the county’s monumental recovery efforts.
Nava is also one of thousands who lost their home in the fire.
“Safety, health and welfare should be your no. 1 priority.”
When flames tore through Lahaina more than two months ago, many were left to fend for themselves. High winds downed power lines — cutting electricity and means to communicate.
“Emergency response through air support is having difficulties,” said Sylvia Luke, at about 10 p.m. on the night of the blaze. At the time, she was serving as acting governor.
As the flames raged, Luke along with the head of the State’s Emergency Management Agency — Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara — explained how they’d prepared in advance of Hurricane Dora’s track south of the state. A wind-fueled fire that grounded helicopters was a curve ball, they said.
“This is not something that is naturally expected from a hurricane,” Luke said.
Only, that exact same scenario happened five years earlier. In 2018, strong winds from Hurricane Lane sparked another wind-whipped wildfire that consumed more than 2,000 acres and 21 homes in the Kauaula Valley, a community just a few minutes up the hill from Lahaina.
“The fact that no lives were lost was a miracle,” said Lahaina resident Joe Pluta.
According to a 2021 report written by Maui County’s Cost of Government Commission, that wildfire “seriously stressed public safety” resources. The report went on to say the firefight was further complicated by strong winds that “grounded aircraft fire response,” just like earlier this year.
Knowing the history, some Lahaina residents now question why emergency planners didn’t have other resources in place, especially since the day before the Aug. 8 disaster the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning predicting wind gusts of up to 60 mph amid bone dry conditions.
“The National Guard should have been already, ready,” said Nava, of the advisory team.
“I feel that boots on the ground should have been in place on this one immediately knowing that we couldn’t get out the air support. It was a failure in every aspect as far as keeping the town safe.”
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That wasn’t the only lesson he says officials should have learned from previous wildfires.
It also seems the county has a history of setting up evacuation shelters too close to burn zones.
That same Cost of Government report said the 2018 fire forced residents who sought refuge at the county’s shelter to flee again when flames got too close. Five years later, there was a repeat.
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen recently described what happened:
“We stood up the Lahaina Civic Center as a shelter in Lahaina. There was no power, no water, no sewer. We set that up. People went there. And then fire threatened that location. So in the middle of the night those people were removed from there by bus and cars.”
Both times, the county also experienced similar problems with power outages and blocked roads.
Sources provided HNN Investigates a copy of the Maui Police Department’s 2018 Hurricane Lane after-action report. It says due to high winds, electricity was cut to the “majority of the Lahaina Town area” including areas in Launuipoko, Puamana, Kauaula and Kalawea Mauka subdivisions. It went on to say because of the fire Honoapiilani Highway was closed to all traffic except for emergency vehicles.
Nava questions why more wasn’t done to create a more robust warning system and evacuation plan.
HNN Investigates asked the county what steps it has taken to bolster its emergency response and hasn’t gotten a response. Meanwhile, the state said in a statement response to Hawaii News Now that National Guard members stationed on Maui were on standby prior to any fires.
HNN confirmed the first National Guard ground support wasn’t deployed to Lahaina until 9:15 p.m. The initial eight personnel were sent to help with traffic control. By then the town had been leveled.
The state says its plans are now being reviewed and will be modified if needed.
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