Maui wildfire official quits after defending decision not to sound sirens warning of blaze

Maui’s top emergencies official has abruptly resigned as local authorities came under increasing scrutiny over their response to the devastating wildfires that have killed at least 111 people on the Hawaiian island so far.

Herman Andaya, the chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, sent his letter of resignation to mayor Richard Bissen on Thursday and it was accepted immediately, the county of Maui confirmed in a statement.

Mr Andaya cited unspecified health reasons for his decision, with no further details provided in the letter.

Mr Bissen said someone would be appointed as soon as possible to fill Mr Andaya’s role.

“Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will be placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible,” Mr Bissen said in a statement.

The resignation comes a day after Mr Andaya defended his decision not to use outdoor alert sirens during the wildfires that devastated the historic seaside community of Lahaina.

“We were afraid that people would have gone mauka,” Mr Andaya said, using a Hawaiian word that means inland or toward the mountain.

“If that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire.”

The Hawaii government says on its website that its “all-hazard” siren system is the largest of its kind in the world.

While it was created after a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 on Hawaii’s Big Island, it “can be used for a variety of both natural and human-caused events; including tsunamis, hurricanes, dam breaches, flooding, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, terrorist threats, hazardous material incidents, and more”, the government says.

As well as criticism for keeping the sirens silent during the fires, other questions have been raised about the local government’s response including a lack of water supplies for firefighters and the management of an escape route that became clogged with vehicles.

The local power utility has also faced criticism for leaving the supply on as strong winds from a passing hurricane buffeted a parched area.

One video showed a cable dangling in a charred patch of grass, surrounded by flames, in the early stages of the wildfire.

“Facts about this event will continue to evolve,” Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura wrote in an email to utility customers on Thursday.

“And while we may not have answers for some time, we are committed, working with many others, to find out what happened as we continue to urgently focus on Maui’s restoration and rebuilding efforts.”

The cause of the fire is not yet clear but an investigation is ongoing.

Hawaii attorney general Anne Lopez said earlier that an outside organisation will conduct “an impartial, independent” review of the government’s response and officials intend “to facilitate any necessary corrective action and to advance future emergency preparedness”.

Additional reporting by agencies