Legal Guide

Maui Fire Update

As rescue efforts continue following Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster since the 1960 tsunami, restlessness and upset on the island of Maui are growing among residents who believe government inaction played a major role in the loss of life and vast destruction. Lahaina Maui fires attorneys are working with victims who have been evacuated, injured, or experienced property damage caused by the fire in Maui.

So far, 96 deaths have been confirmed, and officials warn that the number is going to continue to grow as recovery teams and search-and-recovery dogs gradually work their way through several hundred incinerated vehicles as well as homes that were consumed by the fire in Lahaina.

The once-idyllic coastal town was almost wholly ravaged by a rapidly-moving inferno on August 8th and 9th, and, according to survivors, there were absolutely no warnings.

When Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono was asked on Sunday why the island’s sirens were never turned on, she declined to comment until an investigation was completed by the attorney general’s office.

With nearly its entire infrastructure eradicated, official estimates show that over 2,700 buildings were destroyed or damaged as the blaze ripped through Lahaina, leaving a wake of property damage estimated at around $5.5 billion and leaving thousands of residents with no homes to return to.

A report published by the National Fire Protection Association shows that the Maui wildfire is the deadliest the U.S. has witnessed since October 1918, when 453 people were killed during the Moose Lake and Cloquet Fires in Wisconsin and Minnesota when a spark from a passing train coincided with a drought.

Exactly how prepared officials were for the catastrophe is being called into question. Despite their exposure to natural disasters like violent storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis, the state’s 2022 emergency management plan illustrates the risk of wildfires to island residents as being low. In either case, the tiers of warnings that are designed to protect citizens should disaster strike appear to have been inoperable.

Another Maui fire update shows that rolling power outages prevented most residents from receiving emergency notifications on their phones. No warning sirens tolled and Lahaina residents said they found out about the fire from neighbors attempting to flee the area or seeing it themselves. Left with no time to evacuate, many people were forced to jump into the ocean in an attempt to escape the flames.

A Sunday article in The New York Times said that fire crews sent to battle the blaze discovered that many fire hydrants were dry. One firefighter was quoted as saying “There was just no water in the hydrants.” For now, communications, water, and electricity remain cut off.

Families Struggling to Hold onto Hope

In an apocalyptic landscape reminiscent of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina that decimated New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, crews mark devastated homes and buildings with fluorescent orange Xs indicating a preliminary search, and an ‘HR’ symbol to indicate human remains. Many Lahaina survivors express the same indignation: that this catastrophe was worsened by what they view as negligence from government officials.

With roadblocks physically preventing them from returning to their homes, most remaining residents are decrying government requests to vacate still-affected neighborhoods and warning officials that rebuilding may not be the benign process they are anticipating.

No Clear Cause

Despite the scope of the disaster, which has eclipsed the wildfire that ripped through Paradise, CA in 2018 killing 85 people, an official cause has not yet been determined. A meteorologist from the National Weather Service’s Honolulu office, Robert Bohlin, told Scientific American that the devastating Lahaina, Maui fires were the outcome of a confluence of atmospheric conditions, mainly low humidity, dry vegetation, and strong winds.

While many think that the brush fires in Lahaina, Maui are a clear indication of the consequences of unchecked climate change, environmental researchers and scientists are not so quick to agree. Although the influence that climate change had on the fires is certainly being weighed, no one standalone factor can be blamed. Rapidly escalating temperatures almost certainly contributed to the severity of the fire, but experts agree that this was a compound disaster, driven by far more than global warming itself.

Many lawyers looking into the cause of the wildfires think that there may be other contributory factors besides wind and dry conditions. There may have also been damaged equipment owned by a utility company that could have started the fire.

Hawaiian Electric provides power to 95% of Hawaii residents. When asked to comment, HE released a statement indicating the company has not been able to establish the cause of the fire since most of the area is still inaccessible. 

Suspicion aimed at Hawaiian Electric increases as the power company encounters an onslaught of criticism for failing to cut off power to its Maui branch in spite of ample predictions of perfect fire conditions caused by dry, gale-force winds approaching land.

The strategy of turning off power in these conditions was the protocol used by numerous utility companies in Nevada, Oregon, and California in the wake of the devastating 2020 fires. Before the Lahaina Maui fires erupted, hurricane-force winds had downed several power lines on the island.

Travelers Asked to Avoid Maui

Officials have publicly encouraged visitors to avoid coming to Maui for the foreseeable future, since most remaining hotels are preparing to shelter emergency responders and evacuees. Governor Josh Green stated that 500 hotel rooms will be made available for workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and an additional 500 will be set aside for displaced locals.

The state is also reportedly coordinating with Airbnb to ensure that rental cottages and homes are available for locals. Green also stated that some hotels will continue conducting business as usual to help support the local economy and preserve jobs.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that roughly 46,000 tourists and residents have been flown out of West Maui’s Kahului Airport since the destruction in Lahaina became evident on Wednesday, July 9th. Tourists are still continuing to visit Hawaii’s many other islands.

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