Fire department after-action report on Hawaii wildfires details need for more equipment, aid program

FILE-Burned cars and destroyed buildings are pictured in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on August 11, 2023. (Photo by PAULA RAMON/AFP via Getty Images)

The Maui Fire Department released an after-action report Tuesday explaining that more equipment like fire trucks or water tankers would have helped the agency fight the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years. 

A need for extra firefighting equipment is among the 17 recommendations included in the report created for the department by the Western Fire Chiefs Association. 

The report details what went well when the department responded in Lahaina, Olinda and Kula on Aug. 8, 2023, as well as improvements that can be made, Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Giesa told the Associated Press. 

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One of the recommendations in the report calls for the department to keep their relief fire equipment fully stocked. Other recommendations include creating a statewide mutual aid program and evacuation plans for residents who speak different languages.

Giesa and Fire Chief Brad Ventura discussed the report during a news conference in Kula on Tuesday morning and said the full document would be released later that day.

One off-duty safety officer repeatedly drove his personal moped into the fire zone to rescue people, according to Ventura, and other firefighters drove their own cars to the perimeter and ran and hiked inside to evacuate people, the AP reported.

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Tuesday’s release comes a day before Hawaii’s Attorney General is expected to release phase one of a separate investigation about the events before, during, and after last year’s fires.

The reports could help officials understand exactly what happened when the wind-whipped fire overtook the historic Maui town of Lahaina, destroying roughly 3,000 properties and causing more than $5.5 billion in estimated damage, the AP reported citing state officials.

According to the Associated Press, the Western Fire Chiefs Association created the after-action report for the Maui Fire Department. These reports are used by military organizations, emergency response agencies, government entities, and even companies to help identify the strengths and weaknesses of the organization's response to an emergency.

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Several factors contributing to the fire have been reported already: Strong winds from a hurricane passing offshore had downed power lines and knocked off parts of rooftops, and debris blocked roads throughout Lahaina.

Hawaiian Electric admitted that one of its power lines fell and caused a fire in Lahaina the morning of Aug. 8, but the utility company denies that the morning fire caused the flames that burned through the town later that day, the AP noted. 

Most of the county’s fire teams were fighting other wildfires on a different part of the island, but their efforts were affected at times due to a loss of water pressure caused by winds knocking out electricity for the water pumps used to load firefighting tanks and supplies. 

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Without cellphone and internet service, residents were unable to call for help or share information about the fire, including evacuation announcements, and the AP reported that emergency officials did not use Hawaii’s extensive network of emergency sirens to warn Lahaina residents.

In February, the Maui Police Department released a similar after-action report, which included 32 recommendations to improve the agency’s disaster response, including that the department obtain better equipment and station a high-ranking officer in the island’s communications center during emergencies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.  This story was reported from Washington, D.C.