Maui police release first report after investigation into response to deadly blazes

(NEW YORK) — It was a perfect storm that confronted first responders when wildfires broke out on the Hawaiian island of Maui in August, investigators have determined.

“Severe weather” fed the flames, investigators say, and many of the already limited roads became impassable. An already understaffed police force was left to grapple with communications and equipment problems that hadn’t previously been anticipated, a preliminary after-action investigation has found.

Those are some of the findings of the probe, released Monday by the Maui Police Department. It’s the first analysis performed by any of the island’s emergency response agencies since wildfires destroyed the historic Lahaina district of the island on Aug. 8, 2023, ultimately, according to the report, killing 100 people, burning more than 6,600 acres, and leaving thousands of homes and other structures in ruins. The wind-fed blaze stands as what state officials said was the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history and America’s deadliest wildfire in over a century, the fifth deadliest in U.S. history.

“In policing, we respond to dynamic and evolving situations,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier wrote in the report released Monday. “We cannot control the incidents we respond to; we can, however, control our responses in the aftermath.”

At a press briefing Monday evening, Pelletier led the room in 100 seconds of silence “to honor those we lost.”

“If it seems like that was long, realize this: for the families, the pain never ends, and the silence is deafening,” Pelletier said.

The 98-page document paints a picture of chaos on Maui as winds from a Pacific hurricane fueled a series of fires that started throughout Aug. 8 in four different locations on the 727-square-mile island. As one blaze was contained, another seemed to start. Then finally, with the ferocity of the gales of Hawaiian legend, the winds fueled a fire in Lahaina that made it impossible to see, collapsed communications systems, downed power lines and rendered evacuation routes nearly useless, according to the report.

It wasn’t just the thick smoke and rapidly spreading flames, investigators found, that made Maui officers’ jobs — and citizens’ survival — harder: A toxic haze of false information lingered in the chaos, and, the report said, fed confusion.

The police after-action review was led by Sgt. Chase Bell, who was assigned to the investigation by the chief and who interviewed every single officer and police department staffer connected to the department’s response. He said the report was to determine what was done wrong, what was done right and what needed to be done in the future for the island’s police force to be better prepared for the next natural disaster.

Among the report’s findings are:

  • As police juggled citizens’ frantic evacuations, redirecting traffic away from hazards — even as their own families were forced to flee — some officers were unable to contact their families and, at first, some went without proper protective gear.
  • Emergency dispatch for the island, which is run by the police department, was quickly overwhelmed by a call volume that staffers could not handle.
  • Wind and flames quickly tore through utility poles and cables, leaving Lahaina without cellular or Wi-Fi capacity.
  • Fractured and fallen utility poles blocked the roads as gusts barreled across the island. Suspended cables and downed high-voltage electrical wires were “spiderwebbed” and strewn across roadways — cutting off what could have been the few critical routes for escape. In hardest-hit Lahaina, that was particularly perilous: A single highway offers the “only major road” through the area, the “primary route for transportation and logistics.”

Despite the red flag warnings of dangerously high winds days ahead of Aug. 8, Hawaiian Electric did not preemptively shut off the power, the utility’s CEO, Shelee Kimura, testified in September, with the company telling ABC News that they, “like many utilities, do not have a power shut-off program;” that “preemptive, short-notice power shutoffs have to be coordinated with first responders,” and “in Lahaina, electricity powers the pumps that provide the water needed for firefighting.”

According to Kimura, a fire at 6:30 a.m. was likely caused by power lines that fell in high winds.

The police investigation didn’t address the utility’s potential culpability for the fires, the origin of the blazes or the response by fire crews. The examination dealt exclusively with the actions of the Maui Police Department, which, in the case of fire, plays a secondary role, assisting with evacuations, communications and rescue efforts.

“Life safety is always our primary priority when responding to any incident, and especially in the incident, in an incident of this magnitude. Our officers’ efforts remain focused on this, whether it was by conducting evacuations, the facilitation of emergency traffic getting out, as well as the transport of individuals,” Bell said at Monday’s briefing. “As we all have come to know, this is an unprecedented, prolonged, constantly evolving and wildly dynamic event.”

A fire broke out in Lahaina during the early morning hours of Aug. 8 but was 90% contained by 8:19 a.m., according to the police timeline. Just over five hours later, the winds were kicking up in that same area, and power lines were coming down. By 2:55 pm, a caller reported smoke and fire spreading fast in the area of Kuialua Street and Hookahua Street, according to police. Sixteen more calls would come in within three minutes, police said.

As the fire’s rampage worsened, officers tried to manage “gridlocked” traffic on “key streets” to alleviate congestion so people could escape the famous enclave in the northwestern part of Maui, according to the report. Police used their loudspeakers to try and direct residents even as the “rapid spread of the fire and reduced visibility” made evacuation “challenging,” the report said.

The fire’s spread toward the Lahaina Civic Center prompted more than a thousand people to evacuate, “many without vehicles,” the report said — and from the onset of Lahaina’s fire and “into the morning” of Aug. 9, police and fire personnel “transported hundreds of citizens” within their own emergency vehicles out of harm’s way, according to the report.

Finding other ways meant improvising for police, the report said: One officer worked with a civilian and county employee “to unlock a series of gates and lead evacuees down a dirt road, creating a vital escape path for vehicles.” Another officer “utilized his own straps to tie to a fence and his police vehicle to pull a fence down,” according to the report.

As the fires began and police worked to get people out of their path, “not all officers had proper [personal protective equipment], especially relative to a fire of this magnitude,” the report said.

The MPD report determined officers must have the training and tools to respond even in a crisis that might be unimaginable. The report recommends equipping every police supervisor’s vehicle with a “breaching kit” to clear blocked escape routes, “to ensure lives are preserved,” and to “create go-bags of PPE for each motorized beat” for emergency events.

The MPD’s report also recommends more “real-time crime center cameras” that “would not only reduce crime and response times to crimes, but also to be able to detect smoke” from a centralized command location.

As the fire raged on Aug. 8, emergency dispatch saw an increase in calls for service that taxed a system that was already struggling to keep up with fires that came atop the normal types of police and medical calls, according to the MPD report.

The report said that, in August 2023, the police department’s staffing was 25% shy of the number of police officers it should have, and the civilian dispatch ranks were even more depleted, with fewer than half the spots filled.

As the Maui wildfires tore through paradise, fire calls were ultimately “coupled in” to the calls for service and “communications personnel were challenged to field three days’ worth of calls within a single day,” the police report said. “Never in any current emergency services dispatcher’s career have they experienced the volume of calls received on Aug. 8, 2023.”

In a crisis when fast, accurate communication is vital, it was stymied by the very elements that had conspired to cause the natural disaster, according to the report.

In the high winds, “drones and aircraft were unable to assist” with the crisis and “unable to be deployed,” according to the report. The Lahaina area was “hit with a complete failure of commercial electrical service,” leaving police to rely on two-way radios, the report said. But as wind made it impossible to hear what was being said on the radios, it “led to some misunderstandings of radio transmissions,” and with officers “actively engaged in evacuations” and the “sheer number” of circumstances before them, it was “apparent that officers may have missed certain transmissions,” according to the MPD report.

As emergency efforts in Lahaina continued, the lack of staffing at police headquarters meant that urgent radio traffic from that community was being fielded by “a single dispatcher,” the report found.

Emergency service dispatch stations “should be equipped with radio capabilities,” which would allow them to “receive and dispatch additional support and calls,” the MPD report recommends.

The county’s two communication centers typically receive roughly 360 emergency 911 calls per day, according to the report — but in the 24 hours of Aug. 8, it was 13 times that much: an “unprecedented” combined total of 4,523 calls, investigators found. The report recommends a “dedicated phone line” for disasters to streamline emergency messaging.

By the morning of Aug. 9, the first fatality was found and confirmed. It would be the first of many, the report said, and victim recovery “would take weeks.”

“An anthropologist would work oftentimes on their hands and knees in a very detailed effort to recover everything that was recoverable,” forensic pathologist Dr. Jeremy Stuelpnagel said at Monday’s press briefing. “Sometimes the fragments were as small as a quarter, or smaller.”

As “radio traffic overflowed, personnel were plentiful, however, there were not enough MPD vehicles for all personnel on duty,” the police report said.

The morgue’s facilities and storage had to expand, increasing its autopsy capacity by nearly 400% to accommodate the complex and sensitive process of identifying the many sets of charred remains, according to the report. The report recommends retrofitting the facility and preparing for possible future mass-casualty events.

In the aftermath, as families were desperate for answers, the community stood in shock and the nation watched in horror, as misinformation and disinformation spread, the police report found.

Amid what was already a chaotic and terrifying situation, artificial intelligence was “used to spread disinformation and undermine trust in the government,” feeding confusion, the report said.

“In the days and weeks that followed the fires, there was voluminous information being disseminated that was both factual and fictitious,” the report said. “There was evidence of a concentrated effort, including some by foreign governments, as well as lone wolf actors, to disrupt the integrity of first responders, the community and government.”

A memorandum later found to be bogus and purportedly from FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell was “sent to public and private entities hidden under a email account,” the report said, and claimed to highlight “grave concerns” about the “handling” of the wildfire disaster, and “reveals serious lapses by local authorities, potential assumption of federal control and ongoing criminal investigations.” The fact that the memo was completely false didn’t mitigate the damage it did, the MPD report said.

During the process of notifying families of the dead or injured, the report said, undermined trust posed a “challenge.”

“Some of the families were uneasy with trusting government agencies as they were seeing and hearing conspiracies online, by word of mouth and in the media,” the report said, and some were “hesitant to give DNA samples to help identify family members if remains were recovered.”

“Allowing family members to participate and having the speakers, peer support and chaplains walk around and introduce themselves at the beginning of the briefing helped lower tensions and emotions,” the report said, and teams made sure families knew the DNA samples would “only be used for identification purposes and nothing more, leading more people to provide a sample after the briefing and more remains were identified.”

The final after-action report is expected in the next six to 12 months, Pelletier said.

“These were our worst hours. These were our finest moments,” Pelletier said at Monday’s briefing. “We are Maui strong.”

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