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Hawaii Officials Learned Little From A 2018 Fire That Foreshadowed Lahaina

The deadly fire in Lahaina that scorched much of the town, killed 99 people and traumatized a community in August did not occur without warning.

Five years prior, similar circumstances played out, albeit without deadly consequences. An August 2018 blaze burned through dry grasses, spread by forceful winds from Hurricane Lane. Firefighters were fighting multiple fires simultaneously. Residents, who received no warnings, were left to fend for themselves. Fire hydrants ran dry.

Later, community members questioned why live power lines had not been turned off, why emergency alert sirens had not been activated and why there was no clear evacuation route.

“If a fire started, a lot of residents would be trapped,” resident Tamara Paltin, now Maui County Council member, said at the time.

Now, state and county officials’ apparent failure to adequately analyze that earlier incident for lessons learned is being cited as one of numerous contributing factors to this year’s catastrophe. Many of the problems that presented themselves in 2018 reoccurred in the most recent blaze.

“History repeats itself, and we know that,” said Adam Ingram, an emergency manager who has worked in Ohio and Pennsylvania and has watched the Maui disaster from afar. “Failing to plan is planning to fail. That is essentially what happened here.”

After action reviews are a best practice used by emergency management agencies across the country, Ingram said. The goal is to identify successes and failures in the response and have an honest conversation with stakeholders so everyone is better prepared for the next disaster. They’ve been conducted in incidents ranging from shootings to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group says these reports should answer key questions, including: What was planned? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What are we going to do next time?

“Within emergency management, they are a critical tool in our tool box to get better, to improve,” Ingram said. “You don’t just go through a catastrophic incident and let it breeze by. You don’t just let it go.”

But the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency told Civil Beat it has no record of an after action review of the 2018 blaze.

“HI-EMA has changed leadership several times since early 2018, and none of the current leadership has information that such a report exists,” agency spokesman Adam Weintraub said in an email in response to a public records request.

Around the time such a report would’ve been created, the agency had its hands full, Weintraub said.

“There were several other significant incidents during 2018 that placed heavy demands on HI-EMA’s personnel, including the false missile alert, spring flooding, and the destructive Kilauea eruption. It is possible that conducting the after-action report was assigned a lower priority than other emergency response tasks by the leadership at that time,” he said.

“However, HI-EMA has no concrete information about why an after-action report on the 2018 Maui fires could not be located.”

In recent days, Maui County has not responded to multiple calls to release its own after action report.

Joe Pluta, president of the West Maui Taxpayers Association, has been trying for years to get a copy of the county’s report. He recalls attending a meeting with former Maui Emergency Management Agency director Herman Andaya and then-Mayor Mike Victorino sometime after that fire to ask about the report. He said the county leaders handed him a copy to skim during the meeting but demanded it back and said it was confidential.

Joe Park, vice president of the West Maui Taxpayers Association, was at the meeting and corroborated Pluta’s account.

“I don’t know what they did with it,” Park said of the report.

A message left with Victorino on Friday afternoon was not returned. Andaya could not be reached.

Pluta said he later filed a public records request for the document but said it was ignored. He said he doesn’t remember any specifics from the report. However, at some point, a county employee did provide him with a one-page summary of the review’s findings, which Pluta posted to the taxpayers association website.

According to that document, areas identified for improvement included finding a physically larger space for the county emergency operations center – one with better air conditioning – and unspecified “technological advancements” to increase team members’ “situational awareness.” It recommended asking the Maui County Council for more staffing, although it doesn’t say how many more positions were needed, and it called for additional training for emergency operations staff and partners.

The summary also recommended encouraging the state of Hawaii to adopt “debris management workshops and exercises” – although it doesn’t explain what that means – as well as creating a position to coordinate recovery efforts and identifying team members who were capable of operating geographic information systems.

The county did not respond to questions about whether those actions were taken.

But proposed corrective actions don’t capture many of the concerns community members were calling for at the time. Pluta found it underwhelming.

“It’s too ambiguous. It’s too vague,” he said.

Joseph Pluta, heard his smoke alarm go off on Aug 8 and realized his house was burning. He jumped out of a first-floor window into a swirling wall of flames. How he was guided away from the devastation, he calls a miracle. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Pluta survived the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire by jumping out of a window. He’s still recovering from the physical and mental trauma of the event and his frustration that the whole tragedy was avoidable.

“We said Lahaina will go up like a match,” he said. “Everything I said happened. And it’s a shame. It all could’ve been prevented. This was a totally self-inflicted thing that happened.”

Civil Beat has filed public records requests for emails related to the creation of the county’s 2018 after action report and for any similar report that may have been written by the Maui Fire Department, but has not yet received formal responses. The Maui Police Department already told Hawaii News Now this week that it has no such review in its own records.

The performances of both MEMA and HIEMA before and during the recent Lahaina fire are now under intense scrutiny and are the subject of an investigation authorized by the Hawaii Attorney General.

Park said concrete changes need to happen without further delay.

“We need more fire stations,” he said. “We need more firemen. And they need to make landowners responsible for maintaining the vegetation, especially when it gets closer to an occupied town … Be more open and tell the people what you’re going to do and then do it. Don’t just talk about it. Actually do something. ”

Pluta agreed.

“Our government has got to change their priorities fast,” he said. “Otherwise, none of them belong in their jobs. None of them.”

Source : CivilBeat