The National Weather Service had warned government in Hawaii that a powerful and dangerous wind event was on the way — days before it arrived.
But authorities on Maui and in Oahu, the capital of Hawaii, took no action to cut the power to the power lines, even after the power poles started swaying and falling over during the wind storm that fed the fire that consumed the historic town of Lahaina on Aug. 9.
Hawaiian Electric, which provides power to 95% of the island, was caught flat-footed and the government made no attempt to intervene to prevent an electrical spark. Emergency sirens were not activated, which meant the residents had no warning to evacuate.
Gov. Josh Green, if he knew the storm was coming, chose to be out of state at the time of the disaster, which is now the largest in state history.
Surrounded by water and subject to regular tropical storms, the island has had fires before on its dry side. This one is said to have been started by electric sparks from power lines that were blown down.
But the jury is still out about the cause of the inferno. Environmentalists and the media point to climate change.
Yet, there are hundreds of electric vehicles on Maui, thousands of electric bikes, all with batteries that sometimes catch fire spontaneously. There are also a number of homeless encampments. According to Maui Times, at any given time, there are approximately 800 people sleeping on the streets or in the wooded areas of Maui County.
In 2022, three people were arrested on Maui for arson after six arson brush fires were reported within a 90-minute window, burning five acres of Central Maui that May.
Could it have been arson this week as well? As of now, the officials are saying it was the electric power lines, which puts the laid-back government and utilities of Maui and Hawaii on the hot seat.
Although Hawaiian Electric knows that a power shut-off is the number one most effective strategy, as determined in California and across the dry Western states, it had not adopted it as part of its fire mitigation plans, according to the company and two former power and energy officials interviewed by The Washington Post.
“Doug McLeod, a former energy commissioner for Maui County, also said the utility was aware of the need for a regular shut-down system and to bury lines, especially given the ‘number of close calls in the past,'” The Post wrote.
Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez announced that the Department of the Attorney General will conduct a comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawaiʻi islands this week.
“The Department of the Attorney General shares the grief felt by all in Hawaiʻi, and our hearts go out to everyone affected by this tragedy,” Attorney General Lopez said. “My Department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review. As we continue to support all aspects of the ongoing relief effort, now is the time to begin this process of understanding.”
In Anchorage in 2022, Mayor Dave Bronson cleared homeless encampments from the wooded areas and centralized the campers into Centennial Campground, after a wildfire was set by a vagrant camp in the East Tudor area. At the time, his administration said it was necessary to keep a major fire from erupting during the summer fire season.
On Friday night, the County of Maui updated the fatalities to 80, (Sunday update: 96) but hundreds more are believed to be missing. Other official information provided by the county on Friday night:
- Firefighters continue working to extinguish flare-ups and contain fires in Lahaina, Pulehu/Kihei and Upcountry Maui.
- A Ka’anapali fire reported above Puukolii at 6:10 p.m. Friday was reported to be 100 percent contained before 8:30 p.m. The fire is in the area where a county fueling station was positioned Friday to distribute an estimated 3,000 gallons of gas and 500 gallons of diesel for an estimated 400 vehicles that were lined up before the operation began. No fuel will be distributed Saturday.
- Police are restricting access into West Maui through both Ma’alaea and Waihe’e. Honoapiilani Highway is open for vehicles leaving Lahaina. The burned historic Lahaina town area remains barricaded, with people warned to stay out of the area due to hazards including toxic particles from smoldering areas. Wearing a mask and gloves is advised.
- Volunteers are distributing food, water and other supplies at Napili Plaza.
- Food, water, toiletries, canned goods, diapers, baby formula, clothing and pet food will be distributed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Lahaina Gateway Center.
- Donations of non-perishable food, bottled water and hygiene items will be accepted from 8 a.m. to 6 pm. Saturday at the War Memorial Complex field in Wailuku. No clothing is being accepted.
- A Family Assistance Center for family members who are looking for information about loved ones who are unaccounted for will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Kahului Community Center.
- The county Department of Transportation is coordinating buses to transport people staying at emergency shelters to the county Department of Motor Vehicles and Licensing, which will be open for special hours from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday so shelter occupants can have their driver’s licenses and state identification cards reissued. Fees will be waived. County are volunteering to work to open the department.
- On Friday, a total of 1,418 people were at emergency evacuation shelters at War Memorial Gymnasium, Hannibal Tavares Community Center, Maui High School, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Maui Lani, Kings Cathedral Church and Grace Bible Church.
- Additional cellphone service was becoming available in West Maui. Cellphone users are reminded to text not talk so everyone can share the limited resources.
- For organizations and individuals wishing to offer services or donations to aid in the county rescue and relief efforts, an online tool is available. Information can be provided at https://tinyurl.com/mauireliefsurvey to be used to help organize and deploy resources.
Samaritan’s Purse is now on the ground in Maui, also offering relief. The website is at this link.
Photo credit: Hawaii National Guard, Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson