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17 Aug, 2023 18:04

Maui officials slammed over wildfire response

The island’s Emergency Management Agency was also questioned over its failure to activate warning sirens
Maui officials slammed over wildfire response

Hawaiian authorities delayed the release of water to Maui residents trying to save their properties from last week’s devastating wildfires, local media revealed on Tuesday, citing four insider sources.

The Maui Department of Land and Natural Resources reportedly stalled as West Maui Land Co., which manages agricultural and residential developments on the western part of the island, requested additional water to stop the fast-moving blaze that would ultimately level the town of Lahaina last Tuesday.  

The agency’s deputy director for water management, M. Kaleo Manuel, allegedly wanted the company to get permission from a farm located downstream from its property. By the time Manuel finally released the water, it was too late and the fire had spread. 

Maui’s Emergency Management Agency was also criticized for its response to the inferno. Agency director Herman Andaya defended the decision not to activate the island’s warning sirens, a signal network designed to work even without electricity, arguing the network was meant to be used to warn of tsunamis – not wildfires. Using it to alert residents to last week’s devastating blaze would have “sen[t] the wrong message to the public,” he said on Wednesday. 

However, the island’s own website describes the sirens as an “all-hazard” system, with fires one of several natural and human-caused events “the largest single integrated outdoor siren warning system for public safety in the world” was designed for.   

The decision to warn residents via cell phone alert instead likely proved fatal for many, as the electricity had been out for hours when the fires ignited and cellular reception was down in most of the area. As a result, many residents only realized they were in danger when they smelled smoke, and with roads blocked by downed power lines some had no escape route but to jump into the ocean.  

The wildfire was the deadliest to strike the US in over a century, leaving at least 106 people dead with over 1,300 still missing as of Wednesday. The cause remains unknown, though some have pointed to Hawaiian Electric, whose power lines were seen sparking in the powerful winds that engulfed the island that day. The company has been criticized in the aftermath of the fire for focusing on “green energy” window-dressing to the exclusion of wildfire mitigation.  

Hawaii Governor Josh Green announced on Monday that a “comprehensive review” into decisions made before and during the fire response would be conducted by the state attorney general.