Poor communication stymied Maui's response to deadly wildfires, mayor says in state attorney general report

On the day wildfires destroyed much of Lahaina and killed at least 101 people, poor communications between Maui’s mayor and top state and local emergency officials stymied their realization of how serious the situation was.

At one point, Maui’s top emergency management official rejected an offer of additional help from Honolulu. And evidence since gathered indicates the catastrophic fire that exploded on the afternoon of Aug. 8 ignited in the same area where a downed powerline had sparked an earlier blaze that the county had quickly declared was "100 percent contained."

Such details are among the latest to emerge about Maui's deadly wildfires through a comprehensive timeline released Wednesday as part of an ongoing investigation commissioned by Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez.

The minute-by-minute timeline — the first installment of what’s planned as a three-part probe — was described by investigators as the fact-gathering phase into how preparations and responses unfolded over a 72 hour-span.

The 376-page narrative report, based on interviews, emergency dispatch communications, weather data and other records, is meant to provide the public with an unvarnished look into how events unfolded without drawing conclusions, Lopez and investigators with the nonprofit Fire Safety Research Institute said in a news conference Wednesday.

Critical analysis and recommendations for improvement will come in future installments to be released later this year, they said.

“Let me be clear: we are not here to place blame or draw conclusions,” Lopez said. “The purpose of this independent analysis is to find facts and develop new policies and procedures to save lives and property in the future.”

The tick-tock of events provided in the report aimed to give more factual insight into what key emergency agencies, officials and others did to prepare, warn and respond to critical fire conditions from Aug. 7 to Aug. 9 in the hours before and after the disaster.

Much of what was released Wednesday repeated what was said in other official after-action reports, news accounts and social media posts.

The official cause of the fire remains under investigation and is being handled separately by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Aug. 8 fire — the deadliest in the U.S. in the last century — killed at least 101 people. It also burned 6,271 acres, destroyed 2,173 homes, businesses and other structures and caused more than $6 billion in damage to Lahaina.

Maui resident and community activist Tiare Lawrence said she was disappointed in the report.

“We were hoping that we would get more information in terms of the actual cause that led up to the fire,” Lawrence said Wednesday. “I think, you know, if you’re from Lahaina and from Hawaii, we pretty much know what the cause was. And we’ve always known the issues for years.

“We’ve been asking the county for well over a decade to fix a lot of the problems that led up to this catastrophe.”

Some new details that emerged in the timeline, including statements made to investigators by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, text messages of former Maui Emergency Management Administrator Herman Andaya, reflect problems such as communications breakdowns, under-equipped personnel and the apparent slowness of officials to grasp the severity of the situation.

In an interview with investigators, Bissen recalled that most of the focus that morning for him and others was on a fire on another part of the island, in Kula. During a virtual meeting with state and federal emergency management officials, the main concerns were the Kula fire and blazes on the Big Island, he told investigators.

But as the day wore on, Bissen recalled information started “trickling in” over social media and in calls from the lieutenant governor, telling them there “was no reliable communication other than (public safety) radio.”

“Nobody knew how bad it was,” Bissen recalled to investigators.

The timeline also shows that Hawaii emergency management director James Barros told investigators he spoke with Herman Andaya, Maui's emergency management director, "several times" on Aug. 8 about the fire in Lahaina. But the report indicates Barros was told, "We have it contained."

Later that evening, Barros said, he was informed by the Coast Guard that it was "launching cutters... because of reports of people in the water on Maui." Barros reached out to Maui's Emergency Management Agency for confirmation but received no additional information, the timeline states.

Text exchanges obtained for the timeline also show that a Honolulu emergency official asked Andaya at 1:44 p.m. whether he needed extra help, but Andaya responded that his staff, the mayor and the fire chief weren't asking for it.

Shortly after 4 p.m., after winds were pushing the fire out of control toward Lahaina, group texts show the acting emergency operations director informed Andaya people "looked overwhelmed." But when Andaya asked if he should return to Maui, he was told "it may look ok."

The timeline noted that not all records requested from the emergency management agency had been turned over to investigators, and the agency never filed an activity log making, it difficult to provide a complete, accurate accounting of activities at Maui's emergency operation center.

The disaster has spawned multiple lawsuits, most of which blame Hawaiian Electric Co. for causing the fire. The utility has acknowledged that one of its downed power lines ignited a blaze early Aug. 8 off Lahainaluna Road in the hills above Lahaina. Maui County announced a few hours later that firefighters had fully contained it.

The hall of historic Waiola Church and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission engulfed in flames (Matthew Thayer / The Maui News via AP file)
The hall of historic Waiola Church and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission engulfed in flames (Matthew Thayer / The Maui News via AP file)

Hawaiian Electric has denied it’s responsible for the fire that flared up in the same area that afternoon and later exploded, causing the widespread deaths and destruction.

Steve Kerber, vice president of the fire institute, declined to respond to reporters' questions about whether the afternoon blazes were sparked by the same ignition source, but he acknowledged both were "absolutely in the same area."

Several of the lawsuits also point to Maui County’s failure to sound its outdoor emergency sirens ahead of the blaze as a crucial mistake. Andaya, who defended the decision not to sound the sirens in the aftermath of the blaze, resigned shortly after the catastrophe.

On Wednesday, when pressed whether she would consider criminal negligence charges against emergency officials or others, Lopez said, "We're going to continue this investigation and we will follow it wherever it leads."

She added that her office would not determine whether firefighters left the scene of the earlier blaze too soon, saying she has engaged the fire institute's "scientists who can understand these situations."

The institute was initially contracted for a year, not to exceed $1.5 million, but it has since been extended, Lopez said.

The Maui Fire Department released its own after-action report Tuesday, chronicling how wildfires and the emergency response to them unfolded across the island from Aug. 7 to Aug. 11, during a tropical storm that had prompted red flag warnings in the preceding days.

That report, compiled by the Western Fire Chiefs Association, was based on more than 200 interviews and data analysis, listed 111 recommendations and 17 challenges in preparing for and preventing wildfires on Maui and elsewhere in Hawaii.

Key takeaways included a need for better advance preparation by emergency officials, such as pre-positioning firefighting equipment and getting backup equipment ready during red flag warnings. The report also called out a need for better evacuation coordination between fire and police agencies, noting that main roadways across Maui were choked by traffic and blocked by debris as the fire raged.

Blocked evacuation routes prevented several people from escaping the fire, interviews and records show. An NBC News special report in February found that most people who died lived in Kuhua Camp, a cramped neighborhood along a tangle of narrow streets typically crowded with parked cars, trucks and boats that made access challenging.

On the day of the fire, toppled trees and power lines — including a fallen mango tree that blocked a key intersection — trapped several people trying to flee.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com