Maui residents who narrowly escaped the devastating wildfire that recently swept through the area are questioning why Hawaii’s emergency warning system failed to alert them. Hawaii’s emergency management records show no evidence that warning sirens were triggered before the fire, which killed at least 55 people and destroyed a historic town. Many survivors reported not hearing any sirens and only realizing the danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby. The cause of the failure is unclear, but the county did use emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions, and radio stations. CBC reported
Residents of Maui who narrowly escaped the devastating wildfires have raised concerns about Hawaii’s emergency warning system. Despite boasting the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with approximately 400 sirens positioned across the island chain, many survivors in Lahaina reported not hearing any sirens before the fires reached their homes. Instead, they only became aware of the danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby. One resident, Thomas Leonard, a retired mailman, was unaware of the fire until he smelled smoke and had to abandon his vehicle and run to the shore when nearby cars began exploding. He sought shelter behind a seawall for several hours, enduring hot ash and cinders blown by the wind, before firefighters arrived and escorted him and other survivors to safety.
Records from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency do not indicate that the warning sirens in Maui were triggered on the day of the fire. Instead, emergency alerts were sent to mobile phones, televisions, and radio stations. However, it remains unclear if these alerts were sent before the power and cellular outages occurred, cutting off most communication to Lahaina.
The fire, fueled by dry conditions and strong winds from a passing hurricane, caught Maui by surprise and rapidly spread across the island, destroying homes and decimating Lahaina. The wildfire has already become the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii since the 1960 tsunami, which claimed the lives of 61 people on the Big Island. During a news conference, Governor Josh Green expressed his belief that the death toll will continue to rise as search and rescue operations continue. He described the devastation in Lahaina as resembling the aftermath of a bomb explosion.
The risk of wildfires in Lahaina was well known, as stated in Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan. The plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfire ignitions and a significant number of buildings at risk of wildfire damage. West Maui also had the highest population of people living in multi-unit housing, the second-highest rate of households without a vehicle, and the highest rate of non-English speakers. These factors may have limited the population’s ability to receive timely information and take necessary action during the emergency.
The firefighting efforts in Maui may have also been hindered by a small staff and limited resources. Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, highlighted that there are a maximum of 65 firefighters available at any given time in Maui County, responsible for fighting fires on three islands. The department lacks off-road vehicles, making it challenging to combat brush fires before they reach populated areas. Chief Brad Ventura of the Maui Fire Department explained that the fire spread so rapidly from the brush to residential areas that it was impossible to communicate with the emergency management agencies responsible for issuing warnings.
The chaotic evacuation scene in Lahaina was further compounded by downed power poles, which blocked important roads and forced people to find alternative routes. Marlon Vasquez, a Guatemalan cook who arrived in the US in January 2022, described the harrowing experience of hearing fire alarms when it was already too late to escape in his car. He and his brother managed to flee on roads congested with vehicles, enduring toxic smoke and vomiting along the way. Vasquez expressed uncertainty about the fate of his roommates and neighbors.
In conclusion, the Maui residents who survived the devastating wildfires in Lahaina expressed frustration and confusion about the lack of sirens from Hawaii’s emergency warning system. The fire caught the community by surprise, and many residents only realized the danger when they saw flames or heard explosions. The reliance on emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions, and radios proved ineffective due to widespread power and cellular outages. The risk of wildfires in Lahaina had been identified in the county’s hazard mitigation plan, but the limited resources and small firefighting staff in Maui County, along with the high winds caused by a passing hurricane, made it challenging to contain the blaze. The aftermath of the fire has left Lahaina resembling a wasteland, with homes and blocks reduced to ashes. The death toll is expected to rise as search and rescue operations continue..