Maui's deadly wildfires fueled by lack of preparedness, communication breakdowns

Challenges to communication and evacuation, unprecedented weather conditions and the lack of a "heightened sense" of emergency about fire warnings from the National Weather Service are just a few of the factors that contributed to the devastating fires on Maui last August laid out in two reports released this week.

More than eight months after the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history reduced the town of Lahaina, Maui, to ashes, the Maui Fire Department acknowledged in a report released Tuesday that the island was ill-prepared.

An 84-page report prepared by the Western Fire Chiefs Association at the request of the department contains more than 100 recommendations in 17 "challenge" areas including fire prevention, equipment, response and training. Among the concerns spelled out are a lack of disaster preparation, insufficient rescue personnel and gear, and communication breakdowns.

"While I'm incredibly proud of our department's response, I believe we can always improve our efforts," Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said at a news conference Tuesday.

The inferno killed 101 people and destroyed or damaged more than 2,200 buildings, 86% of them residential, and caused an estimated $6 billion in damage.

The report was one of two released this week, and several others are coming in the weeks and months ahead. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is conducting a separate investigation into the origin and causes of the fire.

At the request of Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez, the Maryland-based Fire Safety Research Institute also is investigating. The institute said its 376-page report released Wednesday is the first phase of a three-part investigation into the response of state and local governments.

“Responsible governance requires we look at what happened, and using an objective, science-based approach, identify how state and county governments responded,” Lopez said. “We will review what worked and what did not work and make improvements to prevent future disasters of this magnitude.”

The institute’s report said the focus must turn to learning from the tragedy, strengthening emergency response capabilities and “building more resilient communities that can withstand the increasing challenges posed by a changing climate and the ever present threat of wildfires.”

It includes a list of the names of 96 people who died, vivid details of the inferno, efforts to rescue and evacuate residents and visitors, and a comprehensive timeline that includes 12,060 entries for Aug. 8-10.

Maui Fire Department wasn't prepared for a disaster

According to the Fire Chiefs Association report, the weather service issued its first red flag warning on Aug. 5, warning of potential fire conditions from Aug. 7 through Aug. 9. But the report found the department didn't have the "heightened sense of urgency" in response to the warning that would have prompted leaders to bring on additional staff and resources.

Once the fire had spread to catastrophic levels, the fire department was ill-equipped to handle the disaster, according to details spelled out in the report. It didn't have enough firefighters, fire trucks and water tankers needed to control the raging fire. As a result, some firefighters had to use their personal vehicles, including mopeds, to evacuate people trapped inside burning buildings.

"When we build a fire station, we're going to be building for the future, not for today," Ventura said at the news briefing. "And there's no perfect number or formula for how many firefighters you actually need. But we do know that we've fallen behind."

The report recommends creating new evacuation routes with underground utilities and minimal foliage along the way.

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Burning embers, flying rooftops and desperate evacuations

The Institute’s report contains no conclusions or recommendations but lays out in gritty detail the events preceding and during the fire.

Firefighters and police officers describe metal roofs flying through the air and falling on cars, an officer who loaned his car to a fireman with a damaged brush truck to go rescue a fire crew, and harrowing efforts to rescue people building by building.

During the early morning of Aug. 8, high winds from the interaction of offshore systems toppled trees and utility poles, “blocking roadways and making evacuation challenging,” the report says. It traces the origin of one fire to 6:35 a.m., when a fast-moving brush fire ignited near the Lahaina Intermediate School. Firefighters responded using private bulldozers and water tankers to establish perimeter lines and soak the fire with water. They reported the fire was out and returned to quarters at 2:17 p.m.

Roughly 38 minutes later, a fire was reported at the same location. Fueled by wind gusts as high as 80 mph, the fire ignited nearby grasslands then spread through direct flames, radiant heating and flying embers.

By 3:37 p.m. on Aug. 8, a firefighter tells a dispatcher multiple structures are on fire.

At 3:40 on one channel, a radio identified as “command” tells firefighters: “You guys have to get out of these houses that are already burning and get ahead of this thing.” In that same exchange, the command officer says: “If we don’t get water on this fire we are going to have multiple structures going very quickly.”

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Transcripts of one radio call after another describe the challenges to evacuating the town, including fire trucks entangled by power lines or blocked by obstructions that had to be abandoned and a firefighter who rescued seven colleagues, including an unconscious officer.

The accounts describe tense efforts to navigate downed power poles, trapped vehicles and other traffic hazards in the rush to get people out of harm's way. In one location, as they scrambled to evacuate people and keep the roads open, a motorist arrived with keys to a locked gate across a dirt road that allowed heavy traffic to move out of the area. Officers used their vehicles and help from nearby residents to break open other gates that allowed access to dirt roads leading out of the area.

The fire spread to the ocean, but along its path, water pipes failed and water flowed unrestricted, dropping pressure in water mains to the point that no water was available from some fire hydrants in Lahaina.

The institute said its next phase will analyze the incident and the third will address questions about how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Inability to communicate on Maui slowed relief efforts

Though a number of factors led to the disaster, communication breakdowns may have been the biggest problem, according to Hawaii State Rep. Elle Cochran, who represents Lahaina.

The chiefs association's recommendations include the need for officials to analyze the island's cellular system. Cellphone and internet services were unreliable throughout the wildfire, posing challenges for people seeking assistance or updates on the fire's progression, including evacuation notices.

Additionally, emergency sirens, a part of Hawaii's extensive warning network, were not used to alert residents in Lahaina.

"The No. 1 biggest thing is communication. I mean, that is when everything fell apart," Cochran told USA TODAY. "We had no communication, and we were all left in the dark. It happened for days, even after the incident."

Another recommendation includes a new, comprehensive evacuation plan catering to residents of different linguistic backgrounds. Cochran said that she isn't surprised by the recommendation; assisting non-native English speakers was a "huge problem" during the wildfires.

"I had a hub where I had FEMA there seven days a week trying to help the community. But 40% of the population in Lahaina is Filipino. In particular, there were Ilocano (an Austronesian language spoken in the Philippines) speakers, and we didn't have any people ready to translate it that way," Cochran said. "And I kept asking every day, 'Translator, we need a translator,' and it never happened."

"We need to move forward"

Cochran referred to the fire as "the perfect storm" and acknowledged that Hawaii officials could view the report as a valuable lesson.

"Who could've predicted that something that strong and that fierce could occur in collaboration with the fire?" Cochran said. "Next time we're going to have evacuation routes, we're going to have connectivity and communication, and we're going to have enough fire trucks."

Cochran emphasized the need to start planning for the next disaster as soon as possible.

"Now we have that time to start over and create a mitigation plan and make sure that we fund it."

Jeremy Yurow is a politics reporting fellow based in Hawaii for the USA TODAY Network. You can reach him at or on X, formerly Twitter @JeremyYurow. Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and the environment for USA TODAY. Reach her at or @dinahvp.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Maui fire response hindered by lack of planning, fire department says