Maui Island burnt in US deadliest wildfire in over 100 years, more deaths predicted

Xinhua | Updated: 2023-08-13 18:17
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People watch as smoke fills the air from raging wildfires on Front Street in downtown Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug 8. ALAN DICKAR/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Despite the bad weather, questions have been raised about Hawaii's siren system, as many survivors told the media that they received no official warnings about the blaze when the tragedy fell down and only realized they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby.

The Hawaii Emergency Services Administration said on Friday that the warning sirens were not activated "on Maui during the wildfire incident," but alerts were sent by mobile devices, radio and television, and the opt-in resident alert system.

Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura said the fire moved so quickly from brush to neighborhoods that it was impossible to get messages to the emergency management agency.

But Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, told the Honolulu Civil Beat that the tragedy was foreseeable.

She said a report that she co-authored nearly a decade ago identified an increased wildfire risk to Maui, with Lahaina in an extreme risk area.

"Much more could have been done" to prevent or mitigate the disaster, she said.

Hawaii's siren system, known as the "All-hazard Statewide Outdoor Warning Siren System," is used to warn residents about emergencies including earthquakes, tsunamis, brush fires, flooding, lava, or terrorist events, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

The system, established after a tsunami in the 1960s, sounded mistakenly twice in recent years.

In 2018, the text message alert system falsely told the whole state to take cover for an incoming ballistic missile that didn't exist. In 2019, residents in Oahu and Maui were sent into a brief panic when the outdoor siren system was triggered during a training.

In regard to these complaints, Green said Friday he couldn't say for certain if Maui's emergency siren system was activated properly ahead of the deadly wildfires.

Green told NBC News' Lester Holt on Friday that Lahaina is located in a "very remote place" and Hurricane Dora knocked out telecommunications and essentially rendered the island dark at that night.

"I'm very reluctant to blame anyone," he said. "We were fighting multiple fires that were being moved. Because of these winds, we're of course, like everyone else, dealing with the extreme changes, global warming, the drying of our land. And then when this storm passed to the south of Hawaii, that was the hurricane -- it sent those winds."

"Of course, we would never diminish any kind of responsibility," he added.

"This is a tragic day for everyone in Hawaii and the nation. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and the survivors suffering through the deadliest natural disaster the state has seen in generations," Green said in a statement Thursday.

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