Records from Hawaii emergency management confirm that the warning system was not triggered before a wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. Despite boasting the largest outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, many survivors reported not hearing any sirens and only realizing the danger when they saw flames or heard explosions. Power and mobile phone service had gone out earlier that day, leaving the town with no real-time information about the fire. The wildfire, fueled by dry conditions and strong winds, is the state’s deadliest natural disaster since 1960. PA News Agency reported
According to officials, Hawaii emergency management records indicate that the warning system was not activated prior to the devastating wildfire that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. Hawaii is known for having the largest outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, consisting of approximately 400 sirens strategically placed across the islands. However, many survivors from Lahaina reported not hearing any sirens and only became aware of the danger when they saw flames or heard explosions. One resident, Thomas Leonard, a retired postal worker, was unaware of the fire until he smelled smoke. The loss of power and mobile phone service earlier that day left the town without real-time information about the approaching wildfire.
Lahaina, a town with a rich history, was completely decimated by the fire. Mr. Leonard attempted to escape in his Jeep but was forced to abandon the vehicle and seek shelter near the shore when nearby cars started exploding. He took refuge behind a sea wall for hours, enduring the heat and ash from the fire. Eventually, firefighters arrived and led Mr. Leonard and other survivors to safety through the flames.
Although the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency claims that Maui’s warning sirens were not triggered, the county utilized emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions, and radio stations. However, it is uncertain if these alerts were sent before the power and phone outages that severed communication to Lahaina. Fueled by dry conditions and strong winds from Hurricane Dora, the fire rapidly spread across the island, destroying homes and claiming lives. This wildfire is now considered the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii since a tsunami in 1960.
Governor Josh Green, who surveyed the ruins of Lahaina alongside Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, stated that the death toll will likely increase as search and rescue operations continue. The extent of the destruction has led Green to compare it to the aftermath of a bomb explosion. The fire in Lahaina was not unexpected, as the county’s hazard mitigation plan recognized the town and other West Maui communities as high-risk areas for wildfires due to frequent ignitions and a large number of buildings at risk.
Maui’s firefighting efforts were hindered by limited resources and a small staff, according to Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. With only 65 firefighters responsible for fighting fires on three islands, Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, the department lacks off-road vehicles necessary for effectively combating brush fires before they reach populated areas. The hurricane-force winds brought by Hurricane Dora further complicated firefighting efforts.
Evacuation orders were in place for Lahaina residents, while tourists in hotels were advised to shelter in place to allow emergency vehicles access to the area. However, downed power poles added to the chaos, blocking important roads out of town. Communication was also disrupted, with intermittent failures in emergency, landline, and mobile phone services. As a result, tourists were encouraged to leave the island, and efforts were made to assist them in arranging travel home.
President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster on Maui and assured that immediate assistance will be provided to those who have lost loved ones or experienced damage to their homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is mobilizing resources and personnel to aid in the recovery efforts..