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EXCLUSIVE: Maui Wildfires Analyzed

August 23, 2023

39

On August 8, 2023, four wildfires broke out on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Erratic winds and challenging terrain made this fire impossible for firefighters to gain control. At the time of this recording, August 21, 2023, three of the four wildfires are still burning, fatalities have reached 114, and over 800 people are still missing. Reduced to ashes, the historic town of Lahaina now faces a challenging journey towards recovery.

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Hear first-hand accounts of the August 8, 2023, wildfires that broke out on Maui, Hawaii, including Lahaina Fire, in this exclusive episode of Fire Headlines by WFCA.

Update:  As of October 13, 2023 the death toll stood at 98, after the count was lowered in mid-September. The number of people missing has fallen to 7.1

On August 8, 2023, four wildfires broke out on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Erratic winds and challenging terrain made this fire impossible for firefighters to gain control. At the time of this recording, August 21, 2023, three of the four wildfires are still burning, fatalities have reached 114, and over 800 people are still missing. Reduced to ashes, the historic town of Lahaina now faces a challenging journey towards recovery.

In this week’s episode, Chief Bob Horton assumes the role of host, while our panelist Chief Jeff Buchanan welcomes three special guests to share their professional insight and expertise on the subject of catastrophic wildfires:

  • Chief Jeff Murray: Retired Maui Fire Chief and WFCA representative for the State of Hawaii
  • Chief Bob Roper: Retired Fire Chief from Ventura County, California, past Nevada District Forestry and WFCA Policy Advisor
  • Grady Joseph: Previously served as Assistant Director of Recovery Operations and Logistics Management at the California Governors of Office Emergency Services; currently serves as WFCA Disaster Damage Assessment Lead

August 8, 2023: The Start of the Maui Fires

Chief Murray says this time of year in Hawaii typically presents challenges characterized by drought conditions, red flag warnings, and extreme weather due to hurricanes. On August 8, Hurricane Dora was roughly 600 miles south of the island and was downgraded to a tropical storm. Despite this, the winds produced heavy gusts and unpredictable weather across many regions.

Fueled by 85-mile-per-hour winds sweeping through the slopes of West Maui, the Lahaina Fire spread rapidly to the dry grass surrounding homes. Local fire departments combat these types of fires on the island nearly every year. However, in this instance, the blaze advanced ahead of the fire crews multiple times during their intense battle against it. Both firefighters and citizens found themselves surrounded by flames. Many residents were forced to evacuate through the fire. Firefighters remained engaged with the inferno for as long as possible, yet a significant number of fire apparatus and equipment were swallowed by the fire.  

The Lahaina Fire torched roughly 2,200 acres of residential homes and about 500 acres of commercial businesses. The fact that the Lahaina Fire is set to rank among the deadliest fires of the century is a sad realization.

Fire response efforts were spread among all four fires that day. Personnel had been called back to the Lahaina Fire. Ultimately, a mass callout was initiated to bring additional support to the scene. However, the fire overwhelmed all local resources, including law enforcement and medical care. The Honolulu Fire Department, along with Kauai, sent firefighters to Maui, offering a measure of relief to the firefighters on the ground. The community came together with a resilient spirit and donated all they could to help one another.

Chief Murray thanked everyone who has reached out to help this community and reminded us there is a long road to recovery ahead of them. He hopes much can be learned from this tragedy and advance public safety not only in the U.S. but throughout the world.

Wildfires in Hawaii vs. the Mainland

Chief Roper shares his concerns about national wildfire policies that do not take in the different ecosystems, such as the Pacific Islands. “We got to quit taking and looking at a one-size-fits-all all type of thing and look at what makes an area unique,” Chief Roper states. Ecosystems on Maui do not regenerate after a fire, so fire mitigation practices such as prescribed burning are more harmful than helpful in Hawaii.

The difference of this incident occurring in Hawaii rather than the continental U.S. lies in the limitation of the available labor force. However, given the wind-driven nature of this incident, Chief Roper believes the number of firefighters on Maui would not have made a significant difference. Instead, an emergency response plan must be developed that encompasses the way a community is constructed. The issue at hand in today’s world is addressing communities that are already established.

Climate change and weather patterns have changed, but communities have remained relatively unchanged. Once the after-action report is released, Chief Roper predicts policymakers will be challenged on what they will do differently than what was done in the past. When asked “Can what happen in Maui happen in the continental U.S.?” Chief Roper says absolutely. Areas of our country that only have a single-station fire department and no immediate help or resources nearby can find themselves in the same position as Maui.

Recovery Process on Maui

Grady Joseph is on the island of Maui during this week’s episode recording. He reveals that during the initial phases of the fire, before FEMA and additional resources could arrive, the residents of Maui united to pool resources. They established distribution points and enlisted boats from neighboring islands to assist. He compared the devastation witnessed on Maui to that of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California.

As of August 21, 2023, 85% of the burned areas have been searched. Red Cross and FEMA are now on the island and many of the fire victims have been moved out of shelters and into hotels or other non-congregated settings. The EPA has been tasked with removing household hazardous waste and toxic substances resulting from the burned structures. Some toxic substances have become integrated into the ash, water, and even the air. Roughly six to twelve inches of soil will be extracted and tested for toxic matter before the rebuilding process can begin.

Joseph says gaining an understanding of the extent of destruction following a disaster is among the initial crucial steps. This assessment lays the foundation for coordinating the various resources and components to effectively respond to the aftermath of the disaster. Over a dozen different entities will individually inspect the same structure to develop an initial assessment of what was damaged and destroyed. Subsequently, a range of government agencies including FEMA, the Small Business Administration, and insurance companies will also conduct assessments to collect data.

Disaster Damange Assessment

Joseph is heading up WFCA’s latest initiative and service, Disaster Damage Assessment (DDA). DDA integrates additional sources of data and imagery into an existing process to create a single source of truth or a common operating picture of what has happened. This service proves valuable due to its ability to streamline the identification and validation of properties and structures that have suffered devastation. As soon as the extent of damage has been validated, FEMA can swiftly offer additional assistance to affected communities.

The exact same data set can be used by insurance companies to initiate the claims process. Joseph says insurance is always the number one way that people are going to recover. Government programs are available, but they are not designed to make people whole again.

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Sources

  1. Honolulu Civil Beat, “Human Remains From Lahaina Wildfire Found In Courthouse.” Accessed October 16, 2023.

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