Takeaways from this week’s reports on the deadly 2023 Maui fire that destroyed Lahaina

HONOLULU– More than six months after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century destroyed a historic Maui town, officials are still trying to determine what exactly went wrong and how to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. But two reports released this week fill in some of the blanks.

The latest is a detailed timeline of the fire that tore through the heart of Lahaina on August 8, 2023, killing 101 people. Released Wednesday by Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez, it is the first phase of a three-part comprehensive investigation being conducted by the Fire Safety Research Institute, or FSRI, with more to follow in the coming months.

The previous day, the Maui Fire Department released an after-action report prepared by the Western Fire Chiefs Association. It describes the challenges the department faced, as well as more than 100 recommendations for improvements.

These are the main conclusions from the reports:

A major storm toppled power lines and utility poles throughout Lahaina, and the first fire of the day started when a power line snapped and struck dry brush. But firefighters and police received mixed messages about whether Hawaiian Electric had de-energized the lines, the FSRI report said.

Early in the afternoon – before the first fire flared up again and began to overtake the city – a utility worker told firefighters he could not confirm whether the lines were de-energized. It was only after houses started catching fire that emergency dispatchers reached Hawaiian Electric and received confirmation that the power had gone out.

The report also described a communication breakdown between police, firefighters and other emergency services. Mobile networks were down and the police and fire brigade used separate channels that civil servants and others could not listen to. Overwhelmed dispatchers had individual operators trying to monitor as many as five or six channels at once.

Residents and tourists were unable to receive emergency alerts or communicate with loved ones, and 911 operators were inundated with calls. One of the operators was off-island and was not receiving geographic location information on calls, so did not know where to send people fleeing the flames.

Meanwhile, the head of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, Herman Andaya, was off island at a work conference and was receiving frequent text messages and calls from staffers about the rapidly evolving fires. After a series of evacuations in Lahaina, he asked his assistant if he could come home, but was told “things might be looking good,” the report said. A few hours later, after much of the city had been set on fire, Andaya said he would come home the next morning.

A police report earlier this year also revealed communications problems and recommended that a senior officer be posted to the island’s communications center during future emergencies.

Firefighters thought they had extinguished the morning fire, which started in a part of the city far from the ocean. But less than 40 minutes after they left the scene, the flames broke out again and quickly spread from house to house in a nearby neighborhood.

Gusts that still toppled power lines pushed embers and burning debris further into Lahaina.

As firefighters and other emergency services rushed to evacuate homes and move people to safety, the dark smoke reduced visibility to near zero at times. Roads that were not blocked by trees, power poles or power lines became jammed with traffic that sometimes came to a standstill.

But the time people had to escape would likely have been tight even if the roads were all clear: Within 90 minutes, the fires raged all the way to the ocean, according to the FSRI report, and spread north and south .

Some people died in their cars. Others jumped into the ocean to escape the flames. Still others abandoned vehicles and fled on foot.

Firefighters risked their lives again and again by packing survivors into fire trucks to get them to safety, physically carrying victims away from danger and taking shelter behind their own disabled vehicles, Tuesday’s report said.

Many of the department’s crews and engines had already been deployed to fight other wildfires on another part of the island when Lahaina began to burn. The reserve fire engines used in emergencies were not fully equipped with equipment, and valuable minutes were lost replenishing supplies before they could be deployed.

The report also highlighted a lack of mutual aid agreements among Hawaii’s counties, which meant there was no standard way to request assistance from neighboring islands. Authorities also had no plan for evacuating tourists and residents who didn’t speak English — and language barriers made it difficult for firefighters to warn some people of the need to flee.

FSRI researchers are still trying to obtain some data from the Maui Emergency Management Agency. Research program manager Derek Alkonis said Wednesday that they had requested incident activity logs and other data from MEMA several times, but still had not received all the data.

Alkonis did not elaborate on what he called “a problem with obtaining information” from the agency, but said the reason “will be analyzed in subsequent reports.”

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is working on a report on the origin and cause of the fire on behalf of the Maui Fire Department. That report is not yet complete, but is expected to be released in the coming months.


Boone reported from Boise, Idaho; Keller of Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Lauer of Philadelphia. Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon, Hallie Golden in Seattle, Anita Snow in Phoenix and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed.