The photo taken with a mobile phone on Aug. 14, 2023 shows a vehicle destroyed in a wildfire in Lahaina town, Maui Island, Hawaii, the United States.
Yang Pingjun | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
Hawaii will hire an independent investigator to look into how state and local agencies responded to catastrophic wildfires that have left more than 100 people dead, the state attorney general said Thursday.
“This will be an impartial, independent review,” said Attorney General Anne Lopez in a statement. The investigator will be from a third-party, private organization with experience in emergency management, according to the attorney general’s office.
The decision to tap an outside investigator comes as questions mount over whether emergency management officials did enough to warn residents as wildfires rapidly spread in West Maui last week, leaving the historic town of Lahaina in ashes.
Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said during a press conference Wednesday that it is not a criminal investigation.
“It’s not a criminal investigation in any way,” Green said. “Right now we are working to find out how we can make sure it’s safe as we go through hurricane season, as we deal with the reality that there will be fires month in and month out for the decades to come.”
Green ordered the attorney general last week to launch a comprehensive review of the wildfires. As calls grew for an independent investigation, Lopez decided to go with an outsider.
At least 111 people died in the blaze and thousands have been left homeless in the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century, and the worst disaster in Hawaii state history.
Lahaina, a town of about 13,000 people, was devastated in the blaze. More than 2,700 structures were destroyed at an estimated value of $5.6 billion, according to Green.
The Maui County Emergency Management Agency has come under fierce criticism for not activating warning sirens during the blaze. The agency’s website lists wildfires as situations in which the sirens can be activated. Alerts were sent via text message, television and radio, according to the agency.
Herman Andaya, director of Maui’s emergency management agency, defended his decision to not activate the sirens during the blaze. Andaya said the sirens are used primarily for tsunamis and the public is trained to seek higher ground when they are activated. Fleeing to higher ground would have been dangerous during the wildfires, he said.
“We were afraid people would have gone ‘mauka,’ Andaya said during a press conference Wednesday, using a Hawaiian word for mountainside. “And if that was the case they would have gone into the fire.”
“I should also note that there are no sirens on the mountainside where the fire was spreading down, so even if we had sounded the siren it would not have saved those people on the mountainside,” Andaya said.
The wildfires spread suddenly and rapidly last week, fanned by strong winds from Hurricane Dora and fueled by drought conditions in the state.
The cause of the blaze has yet to be determined, but the utility company Hawaii Electric is under growing scrutiny. Four separate lawsuits in Hawaii state court allege that the company’s downed power lines played a role in sparking the fires.