Questions remain over Maui County's response on Aug. 8

Aug. 27—Maui County filed a lawsuit against Hawaiian Electric last week blaming it for the deadly Lahaina fire on Aug. 8, but county officials have yet to release a timeline of the response by its own emergency, police and fire crews in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over 100 years.

On the day of the tragedy that killed at least 115 people, first responders were overwhelmed with reports of fallen power lines and snapped electric poles amid wind gusts of up to 60 mph, yet Maui County did not ask Hawaiian Electric to turn off the power during red flag conditions.

The only continuous communication the county had with Hawaiian Electric's Maui subsidiary was to check on the status and clearance of downed transmission lines and poles blocking roads and highways, Jon Heggie, a public information officer of the Joint Information Center, Maui Communications Team, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an interview.

"The county cannot ask independent, privately owned companies, outside of the fire code and public resource codes, to alter their business practices, minus a violation of either of those (codes)," Heggie said.

While Hawaiian Electric has come under fire for not cutting power, Maui County has sidestepped questions about the response of its emergency crews.

The Maui Fire Department declared the Lahaina fire contained in the morning of Aug. 8 before leaving the scene, but a flare-up would ferociously decimate Lahaina, destroying the 5.5-square-mile heart of town, and leveling more than 2,200 structures, in addition to the human toll.

There are questions about the county's handling of evacuations, and why the Maui Emergency Management Agency did not activate emergency sirens.

Herman Andaya, head of Maui-EMA, resigned after saying he had no regrets about not using sirens. Maui Mayor Richard Bissen on Friday appointed Darryl Oliveira, former head of Hawaii County Civil Defense, as interim Maui-EMA administrator.

The cause of the Lahaina fire has not yet been determined.

A U.S. Department of Justice fire investigation team was sent to Hawaii after the blaze to determine the origin. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Response Team arrived from the ATF's Honolulu field office and the Seattle field division on Aug. 17 to help Maui firefighters and other partners figure out what sparked the fast-moving fire.

In addition, state Attorney General Anne Lopez has hired a third-party private organization with experience in emergency management to "assess the performance of state and county agencies in preparing and responding to the Maui wildfires."

The county sued Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. and several subsidiaries, including Maui Electric Co., on Thursday, accusing the utility company of being liable for damage from three wildfires that tore through Lahaina and Upcountry Maui that day.

The county claims that negligent Hawaiian Electric operations caused the fires in Lahaina, Kula and Olinda and that the utility should pay for damage to public property, lost revenue and expenses for emergency response and recovery.

Hawaiian Electric did not have a public safety power shut-off plan for fire danger weather conditions, and company executives have said electricity was needed to operate water pumps to supply firefighters battling the blazes.

A Maui County Board of Water Supply official told the Star-Advertiser that core components of the water system for Lahaina operate on backup generators that would have allowed pumps to continue operating were it not for the catastrophic nature of the fire, which disabled the system.

Still, the county said in a news release on the morning of the Aug. 8 fire that power outages were affecting the ability to pump water.

"Maui Fire Department declared the Lahaina brush fire 100% contained shortly before 9 a.m. today. However, power outages are impacting the ability to pump water, and the public is asked to conserve water in West Maui," according to the news release issued at 9:55 a.m.

The county operates 11 water facilities in the Lahaina area — two treatment facilities and nine wells. The two treatment facilities and two of the wells are backed up by diesel generators.

John Stufflebean, director of the Maui Department of Water Supply, told the Star-Advertiser on Saturday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is loaning the county generators to back up the other seven wells and is working on buying permanent generators.

"The new reality calls for reconsideration of past practices," he said.

Police and firefighters were spread thin responding to the three wildfires fueled by dry brush, gusty winds and low humidity as Hurricane Dora passed to the south of the state.

In West Maui, fire crews from Napili, Lahaina, Kihei and Wailuku responded to "the fast-moving fire, which was fueled by strong winds as Hurricane Dora passed well south of Hawaii," the county said in a news release at 5:50 p.m.

At that time, evacuations had occurred at Lahaina­luna Road, Hale Mahaolu, Kela­wea Mauka and Lahaina Bypass, the county said.

Seven minutes later the county posted, "Multiple evacuations in place for Lahaina and Upcountry Maui fires."

Many West Maui residents said they never received evacuation orders from the county.

From midnight on Aug. 7 and through Aug. 8, people called to report at least 30 downed utility poles, numerous strands of power lines and street lights blocking traffic in West Maui.

Hawaiian Electric crews dispatched all over West Maui and by 3:55 p.m. the utility activated an incident management team and was coordinating cleanup and power restoration efforts to over 12,000 customers with the Maui Emergency Management Agency.

Police and fire personnel who encounter downed power lines on public roads and highways immediately block access to the area. They reroute traffic while checking with the electric utility to determine if the lines are energized and await Maui Electric crews to come assess the damage, make repairs and remove their debris. Heggie said this is for the safety of residents and first responders, and to protect the county's liability.

In an Aug. 8 news release, Maui Electric reminded the community, "With the forecast of continued high winds, if you see a downed power line, assume it is energized and dangerous. Stay away from downed power lines — at least 30 feet or more (at least two car lengths). Report downed lines immediately by calling Hawaiian Electric's Trouble Line."

In response to Star-Advertiser questions regarding the events of Aug. 8, Hawaiian Electric issued a statement saying, "Because there have been lawsuits filed against the company, we're not in a position to respond to these questions."

Maui County's lawsuit was the 11th legal complaint filed in state court as of Thursday seeking damages related to the fires.

The other civil actions were filed by individuals or groups of individuals who suffered losses of property or life, except for one case that claims fire survivors will suffer future health problems stemming from toxic substances released from burning materials, polluting the air, soil and water.

The conditions during the fatal firestorm were similar to those on Aug. 24, 2018.

On that day, fueled by 70 mph gusts from Hurricane Lane as it passed near the islands, three West Maui fires burned 2,000 acres and destroyed 30 vehicles and 21 structures, most of them homes, according to MFD officials.

The losses included 10 residences in Kauaula Valley occupied by a small community of Native Hawaiian families with long-held ties to the area, as well as multimillion-dollar homes.

A woman who lived in the valley suffered burns to her arms and legs and was flown to Honolulu for treatment. More than two dozen people were displaced.

At a community meeting five days after the fire, then-Mayor Alan Arakawa told residents the incident was "one of the most traumatic weeks" that he ever experienced. The county was preparing for a "major hurricane that the weather bureau was forecasting" and high waves that could have buried Honoapiilani Highway and isolate Lahaina.

In the middle of marshalling resources for Maui and figuring out how to get them on island, "we get three fires," said Arakawa at the 2018 meeting.

"I want to thank everyone who was affected, who participated. Without your help getting evacuated, without the police being there helping out, everyone cooperating to make it as seamless as possible. We could have had a lot of deaths ... When you look at the magnitude of the fire that occurred and the amount of acreage that burned and how close it came to so many houses ... we could have lost most of Lahaina," he said.

The county never published an after-action report from the 2018 West Maui fires.

Hawaiian Electric did not respond to Star-Advertiser questions about whether the company reinforced any of the poles or lines following the 2018 fires and power outages.

The July 2021 Maui County Report on Wildfire Prevention and Cost Recovery made various recommendations.

The investigation found that the number of incidents from a combination of "wild/brush/forest fires appears to be increasing, and that this increase poses an increased threat to citizens, properties, and sacred sites."

The county did not respond to questions about whether it adopted any of the recommendations made by the county's Cost of Government Commission.

Maui County Report on Wildf... by Honolulu Star-Advertiser