Communications breakdown left authorities in the dark and residents without alerts amid Maui fire, report says

An aerial view of the aftermath of a wildfire that devastated greater
Blocks of homes turned to ash after the Maui wildfire.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As wildfires ripped across Maui last August, the head of the emergency management agency was slow to return to the island amid the unfolding crisis, while a broad communications breakdown left authorities in the dark and residents without emergency alerts, according to a report released this week.

Communications problems were also encountered by the Hawaiian Electric Co., with officials unable to confirm that power lines were de-energized until well after flames had caused widespread damage, according to the report released Wednesday by the Hawaii attorney general.

It was the second of two major assessments out this week of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century. A report released Tuesday by the Western Fire Chiefs Assn. detailed the unprecedented challenges facing the Maui Fire Department during an unprecedented series of blazes including one that killed 101 people in the historic town of Lahaina.

An aerial image shows destroyed cars in Lahaina.
An aerial image shows destroyed cars in Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii.
(Patrick T. Fallon / Getty Images)

The new report says that five days before the flames broke out, meteorologists issued a dire warning that strengthening winds resulting from a Pacific hurricane south of Hawaii could create an extreme risk of wildfires across the islands on August 8.

“Confidence in the development of critical fire weather conditions this many days away is quite rare, and we believe that this warrants a heads up to you,” a National Weather Service forecaster said in an email to Hawaii fire contacts on Aug. 3.

Maui Emergency Management Agency posted to Facebook Aug. 6 about a “serious fire and damaging wind threat” due to ongoing dry conditions as Hurricane Dora passed. The agency’s administrator, Herman Andaya, was off the island at a conference on Oahu on Aug. 8 as the Maui fires intensified.

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Andaya’s call and text records show that he was getting updates from Gaye Gabaut, an administrative assistant. After a series of evacuations in Lahaina, Gabaut told Andaya that “multiple people look overwhelmed,” according to the report. Andaya asked if he should come home to which Gabaut responded, “that it may look okay.“

After the fire had been burning for more than five hours, Gabaut told Andaya that flames had reached Front Street in Lahaina; Andaya responded that he “better come home tomorrow.”


The preliminary report describes a breakdown in communication between police responders, firefighters and emergency officials after cellular networks went down. Both the police and fire departments had to communicate using their handheld or car radios on closed channels that public officials and others could not listen to, according to the report.

Meanwhile, a stretched and limited dispatch center had single operators monitoring five or six channels at a time.

Inoperative cell towers left residents and tourists with little ability to receive evacuation orders. And the closed systems used by police created a dam of information that was not being relayed in a timely way to the mayor and emergency officials, the report said.

Fire and smoke fill the sky from wildfires on Maui.
Fire and smoke fills the sky from wildfires on Maui, Hawaii on Aug. 8, 2023.
(Zeke Kalua / County of Maui via Associated Press)

The attorney general’s report is the first phase of a comprehensive assessment that includes a timeline of the 72 hours before, during and after the fire. It says investigators relied on “all known available facts” related to the fire and to the steps that local, state and federal agencies took to prepare for dangerous fires.

Phase 2 of the report will focus on how Maui’s fire protection system functioned during the emergency, specifically what conditions fed the inferno, the attempts to stop its spread, and the evacuation of residents. The report says the third phase will try to answer the critical question “How do we prevent this from happening again?”


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“The tragedy serves as a sobering reminder that the threat of grassland fires, wildfires, and wildfire-initiated urban conflagrations, fueled by climate change and urban encroachment into wildland areas, is a reality that must be addressed with the utmost urgency and diligence — not just in Hawaii, but around the globe,” the authors wrote.

Tuesday’s report by the fire chiefs association described firefighters who carried victims piggyback over downed power lines to safety and sheltered survivors inside their engines. Another first responder drove a moped into a burning neighborhood again and again, whisking people away from danger one at a time.

Fire Department workers “risked their lives in a valiant effort to stop the spread of the fires and save lives,” according to the report, and are now “grappling with questions about what they could have done differently, a reflection that will likely persist throughout the rest of their careers.”

Both reports describe the difficulties and harrowing conditions faced by firefighters returning to the reignited Lahaina fire, including many resources being deployed elsewhere, structures quickly catching fire amid extreme winds and downed electrical lines making it hard to move resources.

Among the challenges faced by the department were poorly stocked fire engines, limited equipment, hydrants that lost water supply and a lack of mutual aid agreements between Hawaii counties.

The fire chiefs recommended that the Maui department keep all backup vehicles ready to go. Extra engines that were on standby for large incidents took up to an hour to deploy, according to the report, because they needed to be stocked with proper equipment. The report did not say what they were missing.


The report recommended creating a statewide mutual aid program and an evacuation plan for residents and tourists who speak different languages.

Many of the factors that contributed to the disaster are already known: A windstorm battering the island had downed power lines and blown off parts of rooftops, and debris blocked roads throughout Lahaina.

Photos of victims are displayed under white crosses with green mountains in the background.
A memorial for victims stands above the Lahaina Bypass highway in the months after the wildfires on Maui.
(Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

Hawaiian Electric has acknowledged that one of its power lines fell and caused a fire in Lahaina early Aug. 8, but the utility company denies that the morning fire caused the flames that burned through the town later that day.

Roughly 40% of Maui County’s firefighting resources were already tied up fighting other wildfires on a different part of the island.

Cellphone and internet services were also down in the area at times, so it was difficult for some to call for help or to get information about the fire. And officials did not use Hawaii’s extensive network of emergency sirens to warn Lahaina residents. The report recommended that officials analyze the island’s cellular system.


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The high winds made it hard at times for first responders to communicate on their radios, and 911 operators and emergency dispatchers were overwhelmed with hundreds of calls.

Police and electricity crews tried to direct people away from roads blocked by power lines. People trying to flee burning neighborhoods packed the few thoroughfares in and out of town.

The traffic jam left some trapped in their cars when the fire overtook them; others who were near the ocean jumped in to escape.

The reports also highlight a vulnerability rooted in the dramatic changes Maui experienced since the arrival of Westerners and the conversion of land into pineapple and sugar plantations in the 19th century. When those closed in the late 1900s, the fallow lands became covered in invasive grasses. That and prolonged drought created a “volatile fuel bed” for fire, Tuesday’s report says.

About 3,000 properties were destroyed when the fire overtook Lahaina, causing more than $5.5 billion in estimated damage, according to state officials.

Associated Press writer Kelleher reported from Honolulu; Boone from Boise, Idaho, and Lauer from Philadelphia. AP reporter Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.