The scourge of the Lahaina fires: why were they so destructive, and who is to blame?

The fierce wildfires that have recently been plaguing Maui have sent the internet into an uproar— but not in the way that you expect. According to numerous firsthand accounts, the combination of emergency officials’ negligence and state-wide water shortages slowed evacuation processes and allowed the fires in early August to intensify, leading to the loss of many innocent lives.

  Maui experienced high winds reaching over 60 miles per hour caused by the nearby Hurricane Dora starting on Aug. 7, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a warning to residents for portions of the region. Coupled with the drought that has been plaguing the entire state for some time, this provided the optimal conditions for wildfires to form. Soon enough, the first fire took place— a downed power line near Kula set a forest ablaze in only a matter of minutes. Although everyone believed that all would be well after firefighters managed to contain it relatively quickly, their worst fears ended up becoming a reality in the mere days that followed.

  No one managed to foresee the extent of the damages that the natural disasters would inflict upon the tropical paradise. Like a domino effect, fires soon began to rapidly erupt across the region as the devastating winds carried embers far and wide. In particular, a wildfire that erupted in the culturally rich town of Lahaina devastated the region and tragically took the lives of over a hundred innocent people, with many more still unaccounted for. 

  So, in this specific case, what allowed them to inflict such large scopes of damage across the island? Could the reason behind the devastating Maui wildfires be attributed to the county’s poor judgment? Or, could it be attributed to the over-conservation of water that has been taking place in the region due to the recurring periods of drought that have likely been brought about by climate change? 

  The answer is simple: if the police department acted accordingly and provided timely updates to locals, the situation would have never turned out like this. If those in charge properly fulfilled their duty, adults would not have had to jump into the hurricane-struck waters to make it out alive and children would not have had to sit anxiously in their houses waiting for the sweet sound of safety they would never get to hear. 

  To see news of natural disasters wreak havoc on a scale like this is shocking, to say the least. After all, as technology continues to advance and allow us to move beyond what was previously deemed impossible, containing wildfires before they spiral out of control should be more than manageable.

  From the very beginning, safety measures implemented for the very purposes of notifying residents in times of crises never served their purposes. Although 80 hazard sirens are spread out throughout Maui County, not a single one went off as the Lahaina fires continued to ravage communities over many days. 

  Yet, the ones who were in charge of the emergency response continue to vehemently deny that their poor decisions were what caused the situation to get out of hand. Sure, they did send out some Amber Alerts. Sure, they did spread the word on their social media accounts. But none of it was enough. In many districts, the high winds led to the cancellation of the first day of school, so children were left in their homes unsupervised as their parents had to leave early in the morning for work. The lack of a clear warning separated families and led to even more casualties– casualties that could have been prevented if anyone, just anyone, notified them appropriately just a few minutes earlier before fires swallowed their neighborhoods whole. 

      According to a statement from Maui Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Administrator Herman Andaya to the Maui News, sounding the sirens would have been a grave error, although it was the only viable way to alert residents of the imminent disaster due to the high winds that made direct communication virtually impossible. Furthermore, since they are primarily used in the case of tsunamis, he claims that the public would have “gone mauka” (short for on the mountainside of the road) toward the fire and more lives would have been lost that way. Nine days after, he resigned due to the crippling backlash that he received after residents tore him to shreds for this erroneous justification.

  After all, the whole purpose of sirens is to alert residents when disaster is imminent, regardless of what type of disaster it may be. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires can cause just as much destruction as tsunamis can, so limiting the use of sirens for strict tsunamis is irrational. Plus, alerting the locals in a timely manner to keep them out of danger is of the utmost priority: keeping them in harm’s way simply because you were blinded by your inability to separate what is right from what is wrong is inexcusable. 

  In the words of Romnick Baraoidan, a Lahaina resident who managed to flee to safety after witnessing those around him meet a not-so-lucky fate, the police department was both slow to react and mistaken in their judgments.

  “They should have just sounded the sirens. Not everyone checks their phones. Not all the kids that were left [in their] homes even had phones. They could have communicated quickly. When they sent the Amber Alert, the fires were already so close to the homes and about to [light up] the whole neighborhood,” expressed Baraoidan.

  This left entire communities in the dark as people struggled to grasp the reality of the situation and just how dangerous everything was starting to become. It was a matter of life or death for them– yet, some spent their last minutes painfully unaware until the very end, as the same people that swore to protect them failed them.

  This public will never forget how much the residents of Maui suffered as a result of a flawed system. To not plan around predictable obstacles like downed telephone wires and internet towers is a critical shortcoming of emergency officials in Maui County, depicting the injustice that residents faced during a time of need. It is not a good look, and steps need to be taken to ensure that no future situation is handled the same way. 

  Now, survivors are faced with the challenge of readjusting to the shifted trajectory of their future, weary of what it may hold. Although most of us are lucky enough to never have to experience something as haunting as this in our lives, the same cannot be said for the thousands of people who lost everything— from their homes to their loved ones— as a result of the Maui fires. 

  In spite of all this, there is still hope. Wherever darkness lies, hope will still prevail as long as the human spirit exists.

  “Now that weeks have passed, I can confidently say that I can move forward. It will take time for us to recover, but I know that as the years go by, everything will definitely get better,” reassures Baraoidan.

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