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The first phase of the Lahaina fire report details timeline of disaster


Hawaii's attorney general has released the first findings from an investigation into last year's wildfires on Maui.


We're learning more about the timeline of how the fire killed more than 100 people and destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. It lays out the challenges first responders faced and suggests some local officials were slow to respond.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Allen has been going through the 375-page report. He joins us now. Greg, that's a lot of pages to get through. Anything new in those pages?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Yes, A, this is the first phase of an investigation by the Fire Safety Research Institute. Hawaii's attorney general Anne Lopez retained the group to do the investigation. And it gives a real detailed timeline of the events that began early on August 8 of last year. It confirms information that the fire started near the Lahaina Intermediate School around 6:30 in the morning that day. You know, fire crews responded quickly, and a little after 2 p.m., they reported it was extinguished.

MARTÍNEZ: So for at least a second, the fire was out?

ALLEN: Right. Within the hour, though, it did flare up again and it spread to the town of Lahaina, driven by high winds from a passing hurricane. The head of the Fire Safety Research Institute, Steve Kerber, who's leading the investigation, says it moved very quickly.

STEVE KERBER: We saw spot fires at the oceanfront within about 90 minutes. Traveling over a mile in about 90 minutes is incredibly fast.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, what about the failure in getting people out as this fire approached? I mean, does this report address that?

ALLEN: Well, the investigators say the critique of what went wrong in the prevention and response to the fire won't come until later this year when they released their next report. But the timeline they prepared shows there were some significant failures in communication that cost lives.

MARTÍNEZ: What kind of failures?

ALLEN: Well, high winds knocked out cell towers early in the day, leaving cellphones useless in Lahaina. Residents and tourists were unable to get any information that way. And it also caused major problems for first responders. Fire investigator Steve Alcona (ph) says when people tried to get out because of high winds, many roads were already blocked.

STEVE ALCONA: These winds were enough to topple utility poles, trees, rip roofs off of structures. And it created a challenge with the traffic going in and out of Lahaina.

MARTÍNEZ: What about local officials? What did that timeline lay out about how they responded?

ALLEN: Well, it does raise questions about Maui's Emergency Management Agency. Officials there seemed unaware of the severity of the fire for most of the day. They didn't send out an evacuation order for Lahaina until after 4 p.m., more than an hour after the fire had spread into the town. The agency's administrator, Herman Andaya, was at a conference on Oahu and didn't make the decision to return to Maui until late in the evening after he learned that Lahaina had been destroyed.

MARTÍNEZ: Maui's Emergency Management Agency, will there be any consequences if they're found negligent?

ALLEN: Well, the fire investigators say a lot of the information about the agency's response that day is missing, and they had to use subpoenas to gather the data they did get. Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen also does not come off well in this report. He resisted suggestions that he issue an emergency declaration. He also declined offers of assistance later from Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency. He just didn't seem to understand how bad things really were. But Attorney General Anne Lopez says a critique of those actions won't happen until the investigation's next phase.


ANNE LOPEZ: The underlying foundation of this report is not to place blame on anybody. This is about never letting this happen again.

MARTÍNEZ: And any clarity yet on how the fire started?

ALLEN: Well, there are more than a thousand lawsuits that have been filed against the county and Hawaiian Electric, whose downed power lines that day may have started the fire. But examination of the cause of the fire, we'll have to wait for a report expected to be out later this year by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's NPR's Greg Allen. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.