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Allways With You

Mistakes that blocked Maui wildfire escape routes


Nov 11, 2023


MAUI — At least 99 people died when an inferno destroyed the town of Lahaina in the deadliest wildfire in modern US history.

Through first-hand accounts, as well as police bodycam footage and recordings, a BBC investigation reveals why it was so hard to escape – and uncovers mistakes from authorities.

By the time she saw the smoke, it was almost too late.

The first thing U’i Kahue noticed was the wind battering her neighborhood, ripping off roofs and felling trees. Then she saw the smoke, rolling in like a black cloud. In no time, the fire had become an inferno.

She grabbed a hose, trying to stop her house from going up in flames. “That’s ridiculous now that I say it out loud, but I’m trying to water the roof.”

A kumu — or teacher — of Hawaiian traditional crafts, U’i has a deep connection to Hawaii, where her family has lived for five generations, and in particular, the town of Lahaina. Located on the northwest coast of Maui, it had once been the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom before the island chain became a US State in 1959.

And now it was burning to the ground.

By the time the fire was put out, at least 99 people had died — some of them trapped in their cars trying to flee.

With just two major roads providing an exit out — the Lahaina Bypass and the Honoapiʻilani Highway — there were few options for people to evacuate in the case of an emergency.

When the fire reached the shoreline, some abandoned their cars, choosing to run to the only place the flames couldn’t reach — the sea.

But U’i didn’t know any of what was to come that afternoon when the fire started in her neighborhood. She just knew she had to get out.

As she raced to her red minivan, three of her neighbors flagged her down: they couldn’t find their car keys. “Get in,” she said.

U’i wanted to leave by the main highway out of town, taking the Lahainaluna Road. But when she eventually reached the intersection with the highway, the road was closed.

Instead, police were directing cars to Front Street, which runs parallel to the shoreline and had become a “parking lot” of backed-up cars. With flames on either side of them, and black smoke swallowing the trail of headlights behind, she had little choice but to drive forward, one inch at a time.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, we’re not moving fast enough’,” she recalled.

There were many reasons why roads were unnavigable that day. Strong winds meant debris had made some smaller roads impassable.

The town is supposed to have an emergency siren — but it was never activated. Many people decided to self-evacuate at around the same time — when they could see the smoke billowing from roofs nearby. That meant that traffic was bumper-to-bumper.

But Maui Police also blocked many roads, adding to the congestion. They say they did this for two reasons: to stop people driving into the path of the fire, and to prevent people from driving near downed power lines.

“If there was a downed power line, that was live, we want to make sure you don’t go over a downed power line,” Chief of Police Pelletier said in August.

In an interview with the BBC, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen confirmed that had influenced the response by local authorities. “We were telling everyone throughout the day to treat the power lines as if they were energized,” he added.

Many have since blamed these closed roads for adding to the confusion that day, and, ultimately, the number of fatalities.

Travis Miller, a photographer and surfer who’s lived in Maui for nearly five years, filmed the highway closed for hours due to a police roadblock at Keawe Street.

“As soon as I saw them close the road, I knew it was insane,” he said. “There were two lanes of open traffic, southbound, that could have been used for people to go north.”

Police said they were simply trying to stop people from getting electrocuted. But was the power even on?

Not according to Hawaiian Electric. The local electricity company has told the BBC that the power was switched off that morning at 6:40 local time (16:40 GMT) when a brush fire was first reported.

Authorities said the fire was totally contained by about 10:00 local time, hours before the afternoon blaze that would engulf the town.

“The control room advised the Maui Police Department on multiple occasions during the day, starting in the morning and extending into the late afternoon, that the company’s lines in Lahaina were not energized,” Hawaiian Electric told the BBC.

Hawaiian Electric said the police called its “trouble center” 18 times on the day of the fire. It has given a recording of one of these conversations to the BBC. In the recording, which occurred at 16:11 local time during the height of the evacuation, police asked whether the power around the road of Lahainaluna was switched off.

“It’s all off,” a Hawaiian Electric employee said.

Hawaiian Electric said a recording was proof they communicated to police the status of the power lines, but did not provide the BBC with any additional recordings.

Maui police see things very differently though.

“Without clear and definitive confirmation that its downed power lines were not energized, Maui’s police officers took reasonable precautions to avoid sending evacuees into potentially electrified lines,” Maui’s police said.

Without additional recordings, the BBC is unable to verify whether police received enough information to make a different decision. But police bodycam footage obtained by the BBC, and interviews with multiple witnesses, have helped to shed light on the confusing and chaotic situation on the ground.

The fire was spreading more quickly than anyone could have expected, and people were running out of time. But with the intersection between Lahainaluna Road and the main highway out of town blocked off, many found themselves cut off from escape.

Police bodycam footage — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request — shows stationary traffic down Lahainaluna Road as people tried to flee the flames.

In addition to the bodycam footage, three separate witnesses told the BBC that when they reached this particular intersection, traffic was blocked in both directions.

In nearly 20 hours of police bodycam footage released to the BBC, police officers on the ground frantically tried to rescue as many people as possible, while others tried to open up escape routes.

But some were also clearly baffled as to why roads had been blocked.

“We’ve got to move these cars! Why are the cars not moving?” said one police officer who was on Lahainaluna Road.

In a recent statement to the BBC, Maui police said the intersection was closed north because of downed power lines.

“Vehicles were not being sent north on Honoapiilani Highway … .due to utility poles snapped at the base and leaning over the highway.”

But at the time, when the officers were told the highway had been blocked by their colleagues, some expressed concern.

“We need to go down there, because they don’t know what the [expletive] they’re doing,” one of them said. “They don’t understand,” another officer said.

Noah Tomkinson, 19, was fleeing with his mother and 13-year-old brother, Milo, when they reached this crossroads.

They thought they had made it to safety, and would be out of town within a couple of minutes.

“Thank God,” he said, he said, in footage of the escape captured on his phone’s camera.

Then his mother saw police cars. “The road’s closed” you can hear her say in surprise.

Police directed them towards town, where they were stuck for nearly two hours in a traffic jam. Noah filmed the chaos around him as his mother frantically tried to find a safe way out.

Eventually they made the decision to climb into the sea to escape the flames, where they met others who had done the same. One man held a stranger’s baby above the waves for hours as the parents held their other two children.

They laughed together in disbelief, trying not to cry as they watched their homes, cars and town burn. Noah and Milo hugged their mother to keep her warm as one hour stretched into six before they were finally rescued by firefighters.

When the fires finally died down, survivors were left to pick up the pieces, and count the bodies.

“There’s dead people in their cars, there’s dead people on the ground. People look like Pompeii — if the wind blows on them, they’re gone,” said Kekoa Lansford, who sold coconuts on Front Street. Once the fire started, he said he drove around, trying to help people escape.

He did not know it at the time, but he had passed by his grandmother’s elderly brother, Joseph Lara, who did not survive.

Like many, Kekoa feels officials contributed to the casualties by closing some roads.

“He was a good guy, who got trapped in a traffic jam, tried to go around it and got stuck in a fire. Died,” he said.

“What should have happened is the roads should have been open.”

Maui Mayor Bissen accepts that the town was not prepared for the fire. When asked by the BBC what lesson could be learnt from the tragedy, he said: “Better preparation. That’s what everybody is pointing to. Better response.”

And who should take responsibility for that lack of preparation? “We all should take responsibility. All of us.”

U’i, with her passengers in tow, did manage to get out of town, saving not only her own life, but the lives of the neighbors she took in her car. Others were not so lucky, a fact that weighs on her even now.

“Every other house has somebody lost,” she said. “I’m not a hero, did you know how many people I passed evidently?”

Living in a hotel since her house burned down, U’i teaches children traditional crafts to take her mind off what happened, and the uncertainty of her future.

She agrees that road closures led to deaths, but she thinks that officials didn’t understand the gravity of the situation when they decided to shut them down.

“I don’t think people purposely blocked the road so that people could burn in their cars,” she said.

“I just think that somebody on the other side of the fence or on the other side of the wall, was trying to do what they thought would be the best thing.”

“Unfortunately, it may have been a mistake and a very costly one”. — BBC


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