Residents of Lāhainā, Hawai’i, may have to wait years for an official report on the raging wildfire that destroyed their legendary town and claimed at least 100 lives in August. But early scrutiny of Maui police footage, internal documents, and resident videos reveals a concerning lapse in emergency response protocols.
Police dash-cam footage reveals “tense, terrifying” moments throughout that terrible August 8 day, writes the Washington Post. Released under a public records request, the videos “raise disturbing questions about communications breakdowns and the county’s emergency response planning and execution, which forced officers to make complicated evacuation decisions and put them and others in dire situations that, some say, could have been avoided.”
An official accounting of the catastrophe has not been released, but one critical point of contention is Maui County’s decision to delay until 4:30 PM the full activation of its Emergency Operations Center (EOC)—“a crucial command postwhere leaders from various agencies and utilities share information and coordinate resources in real time,” the Post writes.
“This delay has come under scrutiny, giventhat multiple major fires had been burning on the island since very early that morning, and downed power lines—which had been reported to police and fire departments—were blocking roads and posing safety risks.”
A timeline reconstructed by the New York Times using hundreds of videos, 911 calls, and evacuation alerts shows the fire jumping the Lāhainā highway—one of the few exits out of town—at 3:22 PM Body-cam footage of police officers fighting the blaze with garden hoses records one saying to the other, “Everything is on fire.”
A 3:51 PM text from a resident at the Hale Mahaolu Eono senior living complex declares himself and five others “trapped” by flames. His final message, at 4:06 PM, mentions cars exploding.
Had the EOC been up and running, police officers at the scene would have been able to confirm with utility officials that downed power lines along the few exit routes were no longer live and that residents could drive over them. As it was, officers followed textbook protocols to consider all downed lines as active, blocking residents from leaving.
People trying to flee south down the Honoapi’ilani Highway were partially blocked by utility trucks assigned to repair the downed lines.
“Maui Electric should not have been trying to repair and reconnect,” said Billy Hankins, a recently retired Maui Police traffic division commander with over 30 years of experience. “They needed to be off the road and help clear it.”
Compounding the tragedy was the fact that police officers had no authority to tell Maui Electric to move their trucks. That order could only have come through the “upper command” at the EOC.
Dash-cam footage reveals “multiple” instances of officers asking for guidance. “If the EOC was fully operational, leaders would have heard all this and they could have quarterbacked to help the on-scene commander figure out how to get people out of there,” Hankins said. “They should have told MECO to get the trucks off the road, could have relayed to officers that the lines are de-energized and they could move cars freely.”
A fully operational EOC would also have been able to assist the desperate officers trying to help residents fleeing along backroads, many of which are blocked at regular intervals by heavy steel gates. On other occasions, when emergencies have required that the gates be opened, the public works department has dispatched workers with keys or cutting tools.
As it was, footage shows private citizens frantically cutting through locks with grinders.
The chaos was compounded by the failure of Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier to “follow multiple internal orders,” including his department’s All-Hazard Plan, which contained detailed information on how to muster officers and resources from other districts.
Maui’s police department has more than 300 officers, writes the Post. During the most chaotic parts of the fire, there were maybe 15 to 20 there, according to the officers present. Other tragic lapses include the decision by Lāhainā’s emergency managers not to activate the town’s all hazards siren system, apparently out of concern that “people might think the siren was warning of a tsunami and evacuate toward the fire,” writes the Times.
Questions are also being asked about an evacuation alert that went out at 4:16 PM, and only to those within an assigned evacuation zone, even as the advancing flames made those borders meaningless.
In response to questions, Maui Police said everything will be in their after-action report, which will be released in 18 to 24 months. The delay is itself raising questions, “given that the county’s internal all-hazard plan states that an after-action report should be produced seven days after the event,” the Post says.