National News

Maui Strong 808: Six months later, police review response to deadly fires

todayFebruary 8, 2024


Maui Police Chief John Pelletier. (Nicco Quinones for ABC News)

(NEW YORK) — On a wind-whipped August evening, Maui police officers Calvin Dawn and Kameryn Pupunu had just wrapped up homicide training when they started to hear radio calls for evacuation in Lahaina, the historic enclave on the other side of their island.

They had no way of knowing then just how desperate those calls would grow in the hours to come on that day six months ago, Aug. 8, 2023 — or how many there would be.

“We thought it was just going to be a normal fire, maybe evacuate a few houses, a few streets,” Pupunu told ABC News. “But, yeah, it was not like that at all.”

Fueled by ferocious gusts from a Pacific hurricane, wildfires developed in four different Maui locations that day. The hardest hit — Lahaina: the blaze ravaged the community, killing 100 people. All told, the fires burned more than 6,600 acres and left thousands of homes and other structures in ruins. It would quickly rank as the worst natural disaster in Hawaii history, officials say, and America’s deadliest wildfire in over a century.

The Hawaiian word for “guardian” or “protector” is kia’i. When a fire breaks out, firefighters are first to get the call to respond. But police are close behind: they are responsible for rescuing and evacuating the community — tasks that are infinitely more difficult on a remote island.

The Maui Police Department Monday released the results of a preliminary after-action investigation into how its officers and staff acted and reacted in response to the Aug. 8 fires. Every officer and dispatcher connected to the fire response was interviewed as part of the probe.

To coincide with the release of their report, Maui police agreed to give ABC News exclusive access to the officers who responded to the blazes, as well as police leaders. They shared a harrowing story of how their understaffed department responded on the day flames of mythic proportions ripped through paradise.

Maui was already under a “red flag” warning on Aug. 8, meaning the powerful hurricane winds could create the risk of “extreme fire” on an island covered by dry fields — and serviced by an aging electrical system.

When first responders sprang into action, they were confronted by a perfect storm of circumstances, investigators determined.

“We had multiple catastrophic, dynamic, rapidly evolving fires that were ripping this island apart,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said.

As one blaze was contained, another seemed to start. 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 a report released by the Maui Police Department this week.

Despite the red flag warnings, Hawaiian Electric did not preemptively shut off the power, according to the utility’s CEO, Shelee Kimura. The company told ABC News that it, “like many utilities,” does not have “a power shut-off program” and 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.” Kimura said a fire at 6:30 a.m. was likely caused by power lines that fell in high winds.

The early-morning fire in Lahaina was “wrapped in a dozer line,” which is when responders clear away the brush, creating a break, and “contained,” Fire Chief Brad Ventura said, with resources on it for over five hours. Firefighters left the scene shortly after 2 p.m. to battle fires elsewhere on the island. An hour later, a fire was once again burning in the same area above Lahaina on the island’s northwestern coast.

As fierce gusts barreled across West Maui, flames raged down the mountainside, and emergency dispatch, run by the police department, began to get flooded with calls for help from Lahaina, dispatcher Melia Johnson recalled. Call volume quickly overwhelmed a thinly staffed workforce, MPD’s report said.

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, the report said.

Wind and flames quickly tore through utility poles and cables, leaving Lahaina without cellular or Wi-Fi capacity, and fallen poles began to block the roads.

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, the report said. And 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” on an island, where rescue and evacuation are already “extremely challenging,” Pelletier said.

Lahaina was already “engulfed” by the time officers Pupunu and Dawn made it in, Pupunu said. He said he realized then that he might never see some of his friends or family again.

Faced with the inferno, Dawn says he powered on his body camera.

“I actually said something like, ‘At least we’ll get our last moments on video,'” he said. “I was like, ‘You know, if I get out of this car, I’m probably not going to get back in the car. And if I do get back in the car, I probably won’t be able to drive out.'”

Nearing the heart of the hellish blaze — where it was nearly impossible to open their eyes — Dawn said they suddenly noticed a flashing light from inside a coffee shop. It was from a cell phone waved by one of more than a dozen people trapped inside.

The officers packed their Ford Explorer and a nearby fire truck with the rescued, still unsure whether they could make it. The road out was narrow, the winds whipping up flames, thick smoke and sharp debris and sheet metal torn from buildings. They were forced to offroad their escape, through grass and over barriers, Dawn said. They eventually made it.

“We just stopped; we took everybody out of our car, and we just went right back into right where we came from,” Dawn said. “We went directly back on the road we had just come out of, and it was completely impassable at that point. So, if we were five minutes off– not even five minutes, we were two minutes off, we would have died, 100%.”

Downed power lines became what officers feared was an electrified minefield in the fires, cutting off would-be escape routes. In the chaos, some residents said it seemed to them that the police were inexplicably trying to keep people from escaping. The police investigation concluded that some roads were closed not to trap motorists but to protect them from dangers at other locations or intersections that they could not see.

Although Hawaiian Electric’s Kimura said all the company’s lines in West Maui had been de-energized for hours by the time a second fire broke out in the same area, Maui’s police chief said that didn’t remove the potential danger.

“De-energized is not grounded. A de-energized line can still kill you,” Pelletier said.

“There’s some roads that no matter what you did, you couldn’t go through. As far as you could see, every single power pole was down,” Officer Rahul Mehra said.

His own house burned that day.

“We didn’t have any information regarding if the wires were hot,” Mehra said. “So, we didn’t know if you could drive over it.”

Flames were advancing fast and unpredictably, jumping over highways that were already hard to reach, tearing through neighborhood after neighborhood, from the mountains to the ocean.

The fires also spread faster than good information could: in a crisis when 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 chaos and “unable to be deployed,” according to the report. The Lahaina area was “hit with a complete failure of commercial electrical service,” the report said, leaving police to communicate only on two-way radios.

But as near-80 mph winds made it impossible to hear what was being said on their radios — and for a police force that did not have earpieces — it “led to some misunderstandings of radio transmissions,” the report said. 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 the fire’s rampage worsened, officers tried to manage “gridlocked” traffic on “key streets” to alleviate congestion so people could escape Lahaina, the report said. Police used loudspeakers to evacuate residents amid the “rapid spread of the fire and reduced visibility.”

The fire’s push 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 emergency vehicles out of harm’s way, according to the report.

It felt like a scene out of an “apocalyptic type movie,” said Officer Kenny Carroll, a 20-year veteran of the Maui police.

“The winds kept changing, and everything kept changing. So, your plan might’ve been good five minutes ago. But with the change of the winds and the fire and stuff, now it’s not an option,” he said.

Finding other ways out 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.

Carroll thought he had an exit route for trapped residents, but as he approached the gate, he realized others were stuck on the other side, also trying to flee. He attached his tow strap to the gate, yanking it open by force.

“Usually, when we train and we plan, we’re getting ready for a bad guy or some type of threat of that nature,” Carroll said. “Never Mother Nature.”

Once the fires abated, the momentum of misinformation gathered speed with a different type of ferocity: a toxic haze of false information was spread in the chaotic aftermath and, the report said, fed confusion. Grief and blame turned toward the officers who had tried to help people escape.

“They’re trying to say that we trapped people and we wanted their houses to burn so that people can come and buy them,” Officer Teanu Rickard said. “Why would I burn my own house, my families’ houses? For what? So I can do what? Like, it makes no sense.”

That criticism is based on a “false narrative,” Pelletier said, explaining what investigators found.

“People are upset. And they haven’t even, like, started grieving for the most part. They need someone to blame,” Mehra said. “And whoever they can find blame on to make themselves feel better at the time, yes. But after they’re done grieving or in the process, they’re gonna realize, hey, these are our people from the community. They lost their homes, too.”

Officials now believe the impetus behind that storm of false information might have been more malicious, revealing they are investigating potential foreign involvement in creating and disseminating some social media posts that fed the false information.

In September, Brad Smith, vice chairman and president of Microsoft Corp., testified before Congress that “people who regularly spread Russian propaganda” were “trying to discourage the people of Lahaina from going to the agencies that could help them. That’s inexcusable.”

“And we saw what we believe is Chinese-directed activity, trying to persuade the world in multiple languages that the fire was caused by the United States government itself using a meteorological weapon,” Smith added.

Disinformation, experts say, is now a sinister and burgeoning type of warfare posing a secondary attack in the wake of disaster.

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.

MPD investigators’ report found artificial intelligence was “used to spread disinformation and undermine trust in the government,” feeding confusion.

“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,” the report said.

“We’re actually seeing that during these major emergencies, terror groups, foreign intelligence services, domestic violent extremists, criminals will use cyber-attacks and information warfare in an effort to create confusion and chaos, to seed distrust of government, to cause fear amongst the populace, even inspire violence,” said John Cohen, the former intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now an ABC News contributor. “Their goal is to disrupt the response. Their goal is to sow discord.”

A memorandum later found to be bogus and purporting to have been authored by 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 fake 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, that 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.”

Now, Pelletier is bent on rebuilding not only his department but also his community.

“It is very much like losing a leg,” he said. “But I can tell you this, that even though you lose a leg, you can, you can, with a prosthetic, learn to stand again, learn to walk again and learn to run again. And our finest days are not behind us. They’re very much in front of us.”

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