Errors that obstructed Maui wildfire escape routes

A devastating wildfire in the US destroyed the town of Lahaina, resulting in the death of at least 99 people. The BBC investigation, based on first-hand accounts and police bodycam footage, reveals the difficulty of escaping the fire and the mistakes made by authorities.

U'i Kahue, a kumu of Hawaiian traditional crafts, witnessed the fire as it began, ripping off roofs and falling trees. She grabbed a hose to stop her house from going up in flames, but it was almost too late. With only two major roads providing an exit out, there were few options for people to evacuate in case of an emergency.

When the fire reached the shoreline, some abandoned their cars and ran to the sea. U'i, unaware of what was to come, knew she had to get out. She raced to her minivan, but three of her neighbors couldn't find their car keys. She wanted to leave by the main highway out of town, taking the Lahainaluna Road, but when she reached the intersection with the highway, the road was closed. Instead, police directed cars to Front Street, which had become a "parking lot" of backed-up cars.

The unnavigable roads were due to strong winds, debris, and the town's supposed emergency siren not being activated. Many people self-evacuated at the same time, leading to bumper-to-bumper traffic. Maui Police blocked many roads to prevent people from driving near downed power lines, and Chief of Police Pelletier stated that they wanted to ensure everyone did not go over a downed power line. Maui Mayor Richard Bissen confirmed that this had influenced the response by local authorities.

Maui's fire department faced confusion and fatalities due to the closure of the highway at Keawe Street, which was caused by a police roadblock. The fire was reported to have been completely contained by about 10:00 local time, hours before the afternoon blaze that would engulf the town. Hawaiian Electric, the local electricity company, has confirmed that the power was switched off that morning at 6:40 local time (16:40 GMT) when a brush fire was first reported. The control room advised the Maui Police Department on multiple occasions during the day, starting in the morning and extending into the late afternoon.

Hawaiian Electric has given a recording of one of these conversations to the BBC, which occurred at 16:11 local time during the height of the evacuation. Police officers took reasonable precautions to avoid sending evacuees into potentially electrified lines. Without additional recordings, the BBC is unable to verify whether police received enough information to make a different decision. However, police bodycam footage obtained by the BBC and interviews with multiple witnesses have helped shed light on the confusing and chaotic situation on the ground.

The fire spread more quickly than expected, and people were running out of time. With the intersection between Lahainaluna Road and the main highway out of town blocked off, many found themselves cut off from escape. Police officers on the ground frantically tried to rescue as many people as possible, while others tried to open up escape routes. Some were also baffled as to why roads had been blocked. In a recent statement to the BBC, Maui police said the intersection was closed north because of downed power lines.


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