Maui Fire Officials Defend Response to Deadly Lahaina Blaze

By Michelle Ma and | April 17, 2024

Maui Fire Department officials defended their initial response to what became the deadliest fire in Hawaii history, saying they stayed at the scene of the Aug. 8 blaze until it was fully extinguished.

The officials commented at a press conference held Tuesday to discuss a report on their department’s involvement in the disaster. They said the report didn’t reach any conclusions about how the wildfire started. Hawaiian Electric Co. remains under scrutiny for its role in the catastrophe, which killed 101 people, caused more than $5.5 billion in damages and wiped out the historic town of Lahaina.

The fire department’s account of its response comes almost seven months after Hawaiian Electric’s chief executive officer told Congress that the fire wasn’t its fault. However, the utility has acknowledged that the Aug. 8 morning brush fire near Lahaina was ignited by its power lines that had been knocked down by high winds.

CEO Shelee Kimura testified to a congressional committee in September that the flames that burned down the town appeared to have been sparked more than six hours after all of Hawaiian Electric’s power lines in West Maui had been de-energized, by which time the firefighters had left the area where they had contained the morning blaze.

Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura was asked at the press conference if his crew would have kept its firefighting apparatus at the morning fire longer considering an understanding now of what had happened.

“Our firefighters are well trained. They’re well equipped,” he said. “They’re basically forced to make decisions every single day with the best information that they have available. And the crew that did that that morning and stayed on scene for five hours was above and beyond what they normally do for most brush fires that we have here on Maui.”

The fire department hired a third party to compile the incident report, which Jeffrey Giesea, assistant chief of support services, said was in part due to accusations of bias and unprecedented media attention. The Western Fire Chiefs Association reviewed documents and conducted interviews with more than 200 personnel, including many outside the fire department such as the Maui Police Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The 84-page report outlines 111 recommendations in four areas: preparation, mitigation, response and recovery. It focuses on the Lahaina fire and three others that all ignited on Aug. 8, noting that the blazes spurred “the largest and most extensive deployment in the history of the County of Maui Department of Fire and Public Safety.” It includes a detailed hour-by-hour summary of actions taken by the fire department that day, as well as descriptions of events the days prior and following.

The report doesn’t address the cause of the Lahaina blaze, which is still under investigation by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Giesea said his department’s report doesn’t “point fingers” or “name names.”

Hawaiian Electric’s stock sank almost 11% to $9.52 at the close of trading Tuesday in the wake of a local news report that a separate probe of the Maui fires by the state attorney general’s office doesn’t find fault with first responders.

“The timeline of events described in the Maui County Fire Department’s After-Action Report aligns with our previously disclosed understanding of the events on Aug. 8 in Lahaina,” said Darren Pai, spokesman for Hawaiian Electric. “The report emphasizes an urgent need to work together to strengthen our state’s infrastructure as extreme weather events intensify.”

The report slated for release Wednesday by Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez may help mitigate liability for Maui County in ongoing litigation based on the proper handling of the situation by first responders, said Josh Price, an analyst for Capstone. Hawaii News Now reported the contents of the report after markets closed Monday.

Hawaiian Electric faces dozens of lawsuits by fire victims’ families accusing it of negligence because the utility didn’t turn off the power despite forecasts of wildfire risk. Maui County also has sued the utility, claiming it failed to properly prepare equipment for the threat of wildfires.

Photograph: Hawaiian Electric restores electric poles in the aftermath of the Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on Aug. 16, 2023. Photographer: Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics Hawaii

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