Maui wildfires death toll rises, Lahaina 80% destroyed

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A wildfire burns in Kihei, Hawaii, on August 9, 2023. Ty O’Neil/AP

When Hawaii officials released a report last year ranking the natural disasters most likely to threaten state residents, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic hazards featured prominently. Near the bottom of a color-coded chart, the state emergency management agency described the risk of wildfires to human life with a single word: “low.”

A year and a half later, the catastrophic fires that engulfed Maui and the historic town of Lahaina this week have already become the state’s deadliest natural disaster in more than six decades, with a fatality count of 55 that is expected to rise. 

Hawaii officials underestimated the deadly threat of wildfires even as they acknowledged a lack of necessary resources to mitigate them, according to a CNN review of state and local emergency planning documents that show how ill-prepared the state was for the disaster. 

One Maui County report on wildfire prevention from 2021 stated that while the number of acres consumed by wildfires had spiked, funds to prevent and mitigate them were “inadequate.” The report also stated that the county fire department’s strategic plan included “nothing about what can and should be done to prevent fires” — in what it called a “significant oversight.”

The report recommended a thorough risk assessment of fire hazards, but it’s not clear whether officials heeded the recommendation. 

Other reports over the past five years show authorities knew the risk of fires was increasing and could be exacerbated by hurricane-force winds — like the Lahaina blaze was.

“Fires occurring as a result of and concurrent with another major threat or disaster, such as a hurricane, are particularly challenging,” one report stated, with first responders and firefighters stretched to capacity. During this week’s fires, Hurricane Dora was hundreds of miles south of Maui, but the storm’s winds still fanned flames on the island.

The state emergency management agency’s public resources webpage also lays out clear, bullet-point recommendations of what residents should do in the event of a hurricane, tsunami, flash flood or earthquake. At the bottom of the page, the agency includes two short paragraphs about wildfires — with no similar advice on ways to stay safe.

Hawaii and Maui County officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Friday as disaster response efforts continued.

Read the full investigation


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