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Lahaina, Maui, 11 August 2023 – Buildings still smolder days after a wildfire gutted downtown Lahaina in Hawaii. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Hawaii Wildfires Spark Frustrations Over Emergency Notification, Resources

Devastating wildfires tore across the island of Maui in Hawaii last week, spreading at high speeds by hurricane winds. More than 90 people are confirmed dead. Emergency personnel are still searching for people, and survivors are calling for investigations into why they received such late notice of the firestorms and why resources and aid are slow in coming.

The cause of the fires—which started on 8 August—has not been determined, but dry weather and high winds exacerbated the fire risk. By the morning of 12 August, the fires were largely contained.

The fires devastated the historic beach resort city of Lahaina, destroying or damaging at least 2,200 structures and burning more than 2,100 acres of land. The Maui Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center estimate that the cost to rebuild will be around $5.52 billion, The New York Times reported. Many of the buildings in Lahaina were older properties, and houses frequently were made with wood siding that would be very flammable.

Hawaii is not a frequent wildfire site, and the recovery process is likely to be complex and long-term. Resources and supplies will need to be brought over from the mainland United States (about 2,400 miles away), and buildings with burnt plastics, electronics, or other materials will need to be sorted through carefully to avoid spilling toxic materials into the area.

The fire struck quickly, and many residents say they had limited warning. The fires moved at about 1 mile per minute to consume Lahaina. There are 80 outdoor sirens on Maui designed to warn residents of tsunamis and natural disasters, but evacuees told the BBC that they did not hear any sirens or receive any official notice to evacuate as the fires moved in. Officials confirmed that the early warning sirens failed to sound.

The U.S. Coast Guard pulled dozens of people out of the ocean along Lahaina’s harbor, where they had sought shelter from the flames for hours when they could not otherwise evacuate the area, the BBC reported.

On 11 August, Hawaii Governor Josh Green announced that the state’s attorney general would lead an investigation into Maui’s emergency response policies. He noted that the extreme conditions that fueled the fire—drought conditions and high winds—made firefighting efforts extremely complicated and unpredictable.

At least 1,000 people have been reported missing since the fires began, and officials expect the death toll to rise once rescue crews take stock of people who perished in homes and other structures, The Washington Post said. As of 12 August, crews with cadaver dogs had covered just 3 percent of the search area, according to Maui Police Chief John Pelletier.

More than 1,400 people have taken shelter in emergency shelters, and thousands more are displaced. Parts of the municipal water system were destroyed or contaminated, and officials are warning residents not to drink tap water—even if it has been boiled—and to take short showers in well-ventilated spaces to avoid chemical exposure. Communication infrastructure has been damaged, overtaxed, and is considered unreliable.

Large stretches of west Maui remain without power in the meantime, and utility Hawaiian Electric warned that some customers in west Maui should “prepare for extended outages that could last several weeks.” The electric company has been criticized for not shutting down electricity to areas where strong winds could spark fires—a tactic that has been adopted in California and other U.S. states following extreme wildfires in recent years, the Post noted. It is unknown at this point if the powerlines contributed to the spread of the wildfires.

Residents have complained that resources are slow in coming from the government, so a volunteer relief effort led by Native Hawaiians has cropped up to shuttle supplies—including fuel, generators, clothing, and meals—to the disaster zone via boat.

Tourism officials are discouraging nonofficial travel to the island. Hotel rooms and Airbnb housing are being reserved for displaced people and first responders as much as possible, the Associated Press reported.

If you wish to donate money to help the victims of the Maui wildfires, consider contributing to the Maui Strong Fund through the Hawai’i Community Foundation here.