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Maui’s fires: a scandal almost beyond comprehension

The story that emerges from the Maui fires that swept through the coastal town of Lahaina on August 8th,  on winds of up to 60 mph which burned through communities of 14,000 inhabitants, is one of terrible tragedy made infinitely worse by gross institutional failure and incompetence. 

Amongst the appalling failures, some of which seem to be ideologically motivated, were:

  • No alarm sirens
  • No water allocated to fight the fires
  • Ineffective fallow land management
  • Ineffective power lines maintenance
  • Ineffective power cuts.
  • Disastrous evacuation management

It is also a story where the authorities seem reluctant to admit to the extent of the tragedy for reasons that the public and press can only guess at.

In this extraordinary exchange, the local mayor point blank refuses to give an estimate of how many children were missing

However, the preferred scapegoat of negligent authorities, climate change, cannot be pawned off on the public so easily on this occasion.

This fire has devastated the community of Lahaina, the death toll is a scandal beyond normal comprehension, and the survivors, many of whom lost family, children in particular, witnessed an emergency response characterised by gross incompetence and failure to act.

People want clear answers, and what is emerging is appalling.

What sets the scene for this disaster is years of neglect of power line maintenance and upgrade.

The area around Lahaina was formerly planted with sugar cane. These formerly irrigated and managed lands have reverted to invasive grasses which in dry seasons, are quick to ignite. Sparks from damaged and neglected power lines caused ignition of these dry grasses.

This is how the day of the fire unfolded.

On the morning of August 8th brush fires started in Upcountry Maui above Lahaina.

An official emergency message was sent out at 6:40am and at 9:00am it was declared 100% contained. Critically, no second emergency notice was sent out in the afternoon when the fire reached Lahaina, according to journalist on the ground Jeremy Lee Quinn.

Fires raged through Lahaina between 4 and 6 pm, and leading to horrific deaths of people in their cars and in their homes.


Recent reporting has confirmed 114 dead bodies, though over 1000 people are still missing.

Although the cause of the initial flare up has not been officially determined, the chief suspect is falling power lines toppled by high winds. Eye witness reports have reported that fires have been started by wind toppled power lines.

With smoke in the air and parts of the power grid being shut down to prevent fire flare ups, schools in Lahaina were closed. Many children returned home and were there alone or with elderly relatives when the fires broke out in the afternoon.

With power down and some mobile transmitter masts down, mobile reception was very poor, which hampered communication.

By 3:30pm the fire had jumped the Lahaina bypass from the southern approach. Lahaina is a coastal town with most main roads running parallel to the coast.

In the most bizarre and negligent decision of the day, an equity-obsessed water official refused a request to divert water to waterbasins in the Lahaina area for five hours while the fire raged.

M. Kaleo Manuel, former deputy director of the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management, delayed the release of the crucial resource for five hours because he prioritized “equity” over the emergent emergency situation.

Manuel, a progressive diversity hire type promoted by the Obama Foundation, is on record saying about water: “We can share it, but it requires true conversations about equity…How do we coexist with the resources we have?”

According to NYPost reporting Manuel would not sanction water diversion to fill fire basins for five hours, while the fire raged.

The report claimed that he told the West Maui Land Company, who requested the water for fire fighting needs, that they could not have it until they had consulted with a local farmer about equitable uses of water.

Access to water should be predicated on “conversations about equity,” according to the Hawaii official under fire for delaying access to water during the Maui wildfires.

M. Kaleo Manuel, former deputy director of the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management, waited for more than five hours to release water during the wildfires that devastated Maui, according to reports.

In a livestream debate hosted by the University of Hawaii last year, Manuel described water as a sacred god.

“Let water connect us and not divide us,” said Manuel, referring to water distribution on the island. “We can share it, but it requires true conversations about equity…How do we coexist with the resources we have?”

A former Obama Foundation leader — part of a program by the former President’s non-profit to help participants with coaching and “practical skill building for social change” — Manuel said he considered water an important tool for social justice


As the town burned a decision was made not to sound the evacuation sirens. These sirens were installed to warn of tsunami approaches and an official decision was made not to use this warning system in case people evacuated to the higher ground towards the fires.

At this time people were queuing up for supplies at the safeway on the main thoroughfare of frontstreet which runs through the town from a north to south direction. Cars leaving the mall car park were prevented from going northwards by a police blockade because of fallen power lines further up this road.

The town was a death trap. Police directed traffic back into the town, into stalled traffic, even as the fire approached through the town from the southern direction.


The northern escapes were clear of traffic while traffic in the way of the fire was at a standstill.

Within the next hour, horror unfolded with fears that people burned alive in their cars. Cars, queued up in traffic standstill, were completely burnt out.

As the fires raged through the town and neighborhoods, parents who had been at work could not return to their homes where children who had been given the day off school were. At present more than 1000 people are still unaccounted for.

Most of those missing, it is suspected, though the mayor won’t confirm how many, are these children.

The slow release of information on who is missing, is feeding paranoi and fear amongst the survivors.  One fears that most of the missing who are still not accounted for, have been burned alive in the fires.

The revelations of the series of disastrous decisions and years of negligence that contributed to this tragedy leaves much of the blame at the feet of officials, and this may be why they are dragging their feet in releasing the full account of the tragedy.

It seems the tragedy of Lahaina could have been an avoidable disaster, but a combination of inaction, and the worst decisions imaginable when action was required, have turned it into the scandal beyond comprehension.

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