LAHAINA, Hawaii (KHON) – New videos show how devastating the Maui fires were due to the strength of the winds.
The videos show the scary moments when residents realized they had to evacuate or possibly burn. Some were stuck on the roadway with no communication, grabbing pets and loved ones in the seconds they had to evacuate.
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the fire started Tuesday and took Maui by surprise, racing through parched brush covering the island and then flattening homes and anything else that lay in its path.
Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura said the fire moved so quickly from brush to neighborhood that it was impossible to get messages to the emergency management agencies responsible for emergency alerts.
The wildfire is already the state’s deadliest natural disaster since a 1960 tsunami, which killed 61 people on the Big Island. During a Thursday press conference, Gov. Josh Green said the death toll will likely rise further as search and rescue operations continue.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down,” Green said after walking the ruins of the town Thursday morning with Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen. “Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina.”
The fire is also the deadliest U.S. wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and laid waste to the town of Paradise.
Lahaina’s wildfire risk was well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfire ignitions and a large number of buildings at risk of wildfire damage.
The report also noted that West Maui had the island’s highest population of people living in multi-unit housing, the second-highest rate of households without a vehicle, and the highest rate of non-English speakers.
“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan noted.
Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. There are a maximum of 65 firefighters working at any given time in Maui County, and they are responsible for fighting fires on three islands — Maui, Molokai and Lanai — he said.
Those crews have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but they are all designed for on-road use. The department does not have any off-road vehicles, he said.
That means fire crews can’t attack brush fires thoroughly before they reach roads or populated areas, Lee said. The high winds caused by Hurricane Dora made that extremely difficult, he said.
“You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,” Lee said. “You’ve got to be careful — you don’t want to get caught downwind from that because you’re going to get run over in a wind-driven fire of that magnitude.”
Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for Lahaina residents, Bissen noted, while tourists in hotels were told to shelter in place so that emergency vehicles could get into the area.
The mayor said that downed power poles added to the chaos as people attempted to flee Lahaina by cutting off two important roads out of town. Speaking at a Thursday afternoon press conference, he said that 29 poles fell with live wires still attached, leaving only the narrow highway toward Kahakuloa.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.