Residents in Maui, Hawaii, are questioning why the state’s emergency warning system failed to alert them when a devastating wildfire approached their homes. Despite boasting the largest outdoor public safety warning system in the world, with 400 sirens across the island chain, many survivors in the town of Lahaina said they did not hear any sirens and only realized the danger when they saw flames or heard explosions. Emergency management records show no indication that the warning sirens were triggered before the fire, which has killed at least 53 people and destroyed the town. TY O’NEIL, CLAIRE RUSH, JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER and REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press reported
Residents of Lahaina, Maui, who narrowly escaped the devastating wildfires that destroyed their homes, are questioning why Hawaii’s emergency warning system failed to alert them. Despite having what is described as the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world, with hundreds of sirens positioned across the island chain, there were no indications that the sirens were triggered before the fire broke out. Many survivors reported that they only became aware of the danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby. The lack of real-time information due to power and cell phone outages left residents like Thomas Leonard, a retired mailman from Lahaina, unaware of the fire until he smelled smoke. He attempted to escape in his Jeep but had to abandon the vehicle and flee on foot when nearby cars started exploding. Leonard found refuge behind a sea wall for several hours before firefighters arrived to escort him and other survivors to safety.
Hawaii’s emergency management agency confirmed that there is no record of the warning sirens being activated. Instead, the county relied on emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions, and radio stations. However, it is unclear if these alerts were sent before communication lines were cut off due to power and cellular outages. The fire, fueled by dry conditions and strong winds from Hurricane Dora, spread rapidly through the parched brush, devastating homes and causing significant loss of life. Governor Josh Green stated that the death toll is expected to rise as search and rescue operations continue.
The risk of wildfires in Lahaina was well-known, as indicated in Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan. The plan identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfire ignitions and a large number of buildings at risk. West Maui also had high population density in multi-unit housing, a high rate of households without vehicles, and a high rate of non-English speakers, which may have limited their ability to receive and understand emergency alerts.
The firefighting efforts were further hindered by limited resources and a small staff. With a maximum of 65 firefighters responsible for fighting fires on three islands, Maui County lacked off-road vehicles necessary to combat brush fires before they reached populated areas. The absence of these vehicles forced firefighters to wait until the fires were closer to roads before they could effectively respond. The strong winds caused by Hurricane Dora made containment efforts even more challenging.
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen noted that mandatory evacuation orders were in place for Lahaina residents, while tourists in hotels were told to shelter in place to allow emergency vehicles to access the area. However, downed power poles caused further chaos as they blocked important roads out of town. As a result, residents faced congested roads filled with vehicles as they desperately tried to flee. The smoke was so toxic that some individuals experienced vomiting. Many residents are still unsure if their loved ones made it to safety due to the lack of communication.
Communication on the island has been sporadic, with 911, landline, and cellular services failing at times. Power outages have also affected various parts of Maui. Tourists have been advised to stay away, and thousands have already left the island with assistance from the Hawaii Convention Center, which has been turned into an aid center. President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster on Maui and promised immediate help for those affected. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is mobilizing emergency personnel to assist in the recovery efforts..