Maui police release 98-page report on Lahaina wildfire response: Officers encountered 'significant challenges'

About six months since the wildfires devastated the coastal town of Lahaina, the Maui Police Department released on Monday an exhaustive 98-page preliminary report on its response to one of the deadliest wildfires in American history.

During a news conference Monday, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier presented the report and opened with a moment of silence to honor those who died in the Aug. 8 wildfires. The police department determined the flames were caused by severe weather, and the winds that fanned the fires created a domino effect of chaos for police.

The fires spread rapidly across the island, fueled by high winds and dry vegetation. As the fire grew in size, the destructive power resulted in black smoke that impeded several evacuations and downed power lines that made it nearly impossible to communicate, according to the report.

The tragedy was compounded by a strenuous search for victims that extended to the ocean off the coast. Officers' accounts in the report and body camera footage revealed that extreme conditions, misinformation, and widespread confusion affected the emergency response.

In the report, Maui police provided 32 recommendations for ways the police department could better respond in a similar emergency or natural disaster, including implementing better equipment and improving communication between officers and other emergency personnel.

"In policing, we respond to dynamic and evolving situations," Pelletier wrote in the report. "We cannot control the incidents we respond to; we can, however, control our responses in the aftermath."

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Maui police preliminary report comes from several probes

The report, which was reviewed by two outside police agencies, will be distributed to law enforcement agencies across the United States as a resource for catastrophe preparation and response. The report will be finalized six to 12 months from now, Pelletier said at the news conference.

The revelations released Monday come from one of several probes into the cause of the fires. Several lawsuits have been filed in the last six months since the disaster left thousands of structures on the island leveled and devastated the spirit of Lahaina.

Despite remaining questions and criticism over the cause of the fires and what, or who may have exacerbated them, the Maui Police Department's investigation solely focused on its response.

The Hawaii attorney general’s office selected outside experts to investigate the fires. Attorney General Anne Lopez announced last November that her office continues to aggressively push the first phase of the independent investigation forward.

Led by the Fire Safety Research Institute, the probe is expected to take at least several more months to be completed.

What were the police's recommendations?

The report's recommendations mostly called for upgraded equipment and technology, such as issuing radio earpieces for officers to better hear and equipping every supervisory police vehicle with a breaching kit to remove debris.

Recommendations also included improving communications between police and other emergency personnel, such as stationing a senior officer – a lieutenant or higher – in the communications center as a liaison to police commanders.

Other recommendations made in the report were:

  • Updating the department's body-worn camera policy to have body-worn cameras activated upon dispatch because "in the midst of the chaos created by the fires, officers faced many obstacles regarding body-worn cameras, including the inability of some officers to retrieve and/or activate their body-worn camera."

  • Directing calls to a dedicated phone line in the event of a disaster "so that the public knows who to call, i.e. for road closures, hazards, evacuations shelters or any other emergency messaging." The report reads: "Dispatch received many phone calls asking for updates on road closures. Callers complained that phone updates were not communicated in a timely manner."

  • Continuing death investigation education for officers, "as some of the initial documentation and photography could have offered more context with better coverage and details."

  • Installing "real-time crime center cameras" throughout Maui County "to detect and alert the presence of smoke and fire."

What else did the report say?

"During the hours of August 8, 2023, Maui became the stage for the most tragic natural disaster in state history and the deadliest fire in modern American history," Pelletier wrote in the report. "In the days and months since this incident, the Maui Police Department has worked uncompromisingly to detail our response."

The report offered a detailed timeline of Maui police's response, starting with a brush fire in the Upcountry region that ignited in the early hours of Aug. 8. Authorities ordered evacuations amid high winds, downed trees and power lines, and other structural destruction.

By 8:19 a.m. local time, the Lahaina fire was reported to be 90% contained, according to the report. But in the hours following, more reports of debris and downed live wires were received as gusty winds moved through the area.

At 2:55 p.m., a caller reported smoke and fire that was spreading fast in the area, according to the report. Sixteen more calls were received in the next three minutes describing the same smoke and fire.

After the fire's quick flareup, officers described in the report their efforts to help residents in the chaos.

"They encountered significant challenges due to heavy smoke, decreasing visibility, and heavy traffic which had caused a gridlock," an account said. "Despite these conditions, they continued evacuation efforts using their P.A. system to guide residents."

The fire later spread toward the Lahaina Civic Center, "prompting a large-scale evacuation of over a thousand people, many without vehicles," another account described. As part of rescue efforts, police and fire personnel transported "hundreds of citizens within their emergency vehicles to safety," the report said.

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First inside look at the wildfire victims: Most people who died were elderly

The report lists the names of the 97 wildfire victims and gives the first inside look into the demographics and whereabouts of the Maui residents who were killed in the tragedy.

The Maui Police Department's Morgue Identification and Notification task force found:

  • A majority of the wildfire victims were between the ages of 60 and 79 years old.

  • More men died than women; 61% of the victims were men and 39% of the victims were women.

  • Three children under the age of 19 died. One was 14. Another was 11. And the youngest was 7.

  • Forty-two people died in structures; 15 people died sheltering in cars; 39 people died outdoors; three people died in a hospital in Oahu; and one person was found in the water.

On Aug. 9, the first fatality was confirmed, according to the report, adding that victim recovery "would take weeks." The last recovery was made on Oct. 12, said Jeremy Stuelpnagel, a forensic pathologist, at the news conference Monday.

Maui Police Department Officer Brad Taylor said the task force investigated all of the estimated 3,000 missing persons investigations. DNA sampling helped them to recover some of the missing persons and identify those who died during the disaster.

Pelletier praised the police department at the conclusion of Monday's news conference.

"Think about that: 9/11 happens; Pearl Harbor happened. We are still identifying those we lost to this day. Just last week, we were able to bring closure to the last family," Pelletier said, adding, "These were our worst hours. These were our finest moments. We are Maui Strong."

Contact Kayla Jimenez at Follow her on X at @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Maui police release preliminary report on Lahaina wildfire response