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‘The fire was out as far as we knew it': FF provides initial actions prior to Lahaina wildfire

Maui firefighters, county officials and Hawaiian Electric officials dispute what happened after the first fire and before Lahaina was destroyed


The aftermath of a devastating wildfire is seen in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

By Peter Boylan
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

MAUI COUNTY, Hawaii — Maui County has not released an official account of how firefighters, police, the Maui Emergency Management Agency and other county departments responded to the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina, Kula and Olinda.

Five firefighters who fought the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire left the scene that day after nearly eight hours containing the blaze so Maui Electric Co. workers could repair downed utility poles and power lines, one of the firefighters and a Maui County attorney said.

Aina Kohler, a 42-year-old Maui firefighter who lost her home Aug. 8, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an interview that firefighters did everything they were trained to do to ensure the fire was contained before they left the scene. That included using 23, 000 gallons of water and cutting fire lines.

When her shift started Aug. 8, Kohler was part of a five-person team that replaced firefighters on an engine, ladder truck and tanker who had been working a 3-acre wildfire overnight that burned the south side of Lahainaluna Road, at the bottom southwest corner of Lahaina Intermediate School.

Kohler said her captain decided to return to their station at 2 :18 p.m. because the Maui Electric crew arrived and Kohler’s crew needed to “rehab " at their fire station. The rehabilitation cycle allows firefighters to clean hoses, reset equipment, hydrate and gain calories by eating and drinking.

“We would test the wind, walk the (fire ) line. ... We hadn’t put water on it for two hours before we left. We don’t have anything that can look and see that every single ember is out. ... The fire was out as far as we knew it. When we left we were confident it was out, but obviously we were wrong, " said Kohler, a 13-year Maui Fire Department veteran who lost the Lahaina home she shares with her firefighter husband, Jonny Varona, and their two children.

Kohler said her crew sat for hours waiting for the Maui Electric crew, which eventually arrived in three big company trucks.

Officials with Hawaiian Electric, MECO’s parent company, declined to answer specific Honolulu Star-Advertiser questions regarding Kohler’s account, and instead responded with a statement.

“The County of Maui’s attorneys are well-aware that the cause of the Afternoon Fire that spread to Lahaina remains undetermined and that the county’s own investigation is ongoing, " Darren Pai, a company spokesman, told the Star-Advertiser in the statement. “Hawaiian Electric has utmost respect for the heroic actions of individual firefighters on Aug. 8 who worked to contain the Lahaina fires. Their dedication to the community is unquestioned. We are continuing to work in partnership with the County of Maui and other agencies to minimize the risk of wildfire and ensure public safety in the face of increasing threats from extreme weather.”

In the company’s Aug. 27 account of the day of the deadly firestorm, Hawaiian Electric officials acknowledged that it appeared their downed electrical equipment started the Lahaina morning fire, which was later 100 % contained by MFD crews who left the scene. But the company contends the town was leveled by a “second fire " that began in the afternoon, hours after the company’s equipment had been “de-energized.”

From midnight Aug. 7 through Aug. 8, people called to report at least 30 downed utility poles, numerous strands of power lines and street lights blocking traffic in West Maui.

MFD declared the Lahaina fire contained before 9 a.m. Aug. 8, but what county officials called a “flare-up " fueled by wind gusts up to 62 mph would destroy the 5.5-square-mile heart of Lahaina town, killing at least 97, leaving 7, 500 homeless and causing about $5.5 billion in damage.

Maui County has not released an official account of how firefighters, police, the Maui Emergency Management Agency and other county departments responded to the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina, Kula and Olinda.

County officials cite ongoing litigation against Hawaiian Electric and other lawsuits seeking to assign liability for the fires as the reason they won’t release a timeline of what the county did or answer any questions.

No cause or origin for the Lahaina fires has been determined. An investigation by MFD and the U.S.

Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is ongoing with no timetable for completion.

Messages seeking comment from Maui Fire Chief Bradford Ventura were referred to the Department of the Corporation Counsel. Ventura and Corporation Counsel Victoria J. Takayesu did not respond to Star-Advertiser requests for comment.

John P. Fiske, a San Diego attorney with Baron &Budd hired by Takayesu to sue Hawaiian Electric, told the Star-Advertiser in an interview that evidence gathered by Carman Fire Investigators found that Maui firefighters were away from the Lahaina fire for only 42 minutes.

Fiske said an MFD crew from the Napili station passed the site of the Lahaina fire looking for smoke or flames on the way to and from another call after Kohler’s crew went to regroup at its station.

The four-person crew from Napili did not report seeing any flames or smoke in Lahaina on either pass, according to Fiske. The 911 call reporting that the fire had restarted came at 2 :54 p.m. Fiske said, and firefighters were dispatched a minute later.

At 3 p.m., flames and smoke were seen near Lahainaluna Road and Kuialua Street from a fire covering an area of about 20 feet by 100 feet and spreading.

Firefighters were able to knock down the head and tail of the Lahaina fire, Fiske said, but the gusting winds lifted glowing embers over their positions and started new fires near the Lahaina Bypass.

“As they are actively knocking down the head of the fire and the heel of the fire ... it jumped them. They are actually there risking their lives ... when it jumps them, " said Fiske. “I think they did everything they were supposed to do.”

Carman Fire Investigators put together the timeline of MFD activity, and is the firm Baron &Budd hires to work their public-entity wildfire cases, Fiske said. Public entities, like Maui County, have hired Fiske’s firm 97 times in wildfire cases to pursue allegedly negligent third parties.

Fiske said when public entities receive federal grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency through either the Public Assistance or Federal Management Assistance Grant programs, the public entities have federal obligations to reimburse FEMA by seeking those funds from “negligent third parties.” These obligations arise under “two federal regulations promulgated by FEMA under the Stafford Act, " according to Fiske.

“Through these investigations, we ascertain negligent third parties in order to help the grant recipients meet their Stafford Act responsibilities, " Fiske said.

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