How did the Maui fire start? What we know about the cause of the Lahaina blaze

Deadly wildfires in Hawaii, which killed over 100 people and forced thousands to evacuate, were fueled by a mix of land and atmospheric conditions that can create "fire weather." A massive blaze destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina, on Maui, and the search for victims continued as hundreds remained missing.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said a few days after the fires broke out that there was "very little left" of Lahaina, where more than 2,700 structures have been destroyed in what is now the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Green said he expects the death toll to keep climbing.

"There are more fatalities that will come," Green told CBS News. "The fire was so hot that what we find is the tragic finding that you would imagine, as though a fire has come through and it's hard to recognize anybody."

Nearly two weeks after the blazes first spread, more than 800 people were still missing, and many of them could be children, Lahaina's mayor said.  

While Maui grapples with the devastating losses and officials work to implement relief and recovery plans, many people have raised questions about how the fires began and whether anything could have been done to prevent such a disaster.

What caused the Maui fire?

An investigation is underway to determine what initially sparked the wildfires, and the cause has not been officially determined. Investigators are looking into whether downed power lines and decisions by Hawaiian Electric, the state's primary power company, played a role. 

Much of Hawaii was under a red flag warning for fire risk when the wildfires broke out, with dangerous high wind conditions caused by Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm that was moving across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of the Hawaiian islands.

"We don't know what actually ignited the fires, but we were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that we were in a red flag situation — so that's dry conditions for a long time, so the fuel, the trees and everything, was dry," Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard, said at a briefing Wednesday, Aug. 9. That, along with low humidity and high winds, "set the conditions for the wildfires," he said.

The earliest blaze reported by Maui County officials was described as a brush fire in the Olinda Road area of Kula, a town in the island's Upcountry region, where wildfires eventually burned through about 700 acres and claimed 19 homes. On Tuesday, Aug. 8, Maui County shared the first details about a Kula brush fire that had forced evacuations early that morning. 

A video clipped from security camera footage at the Maui Bird Conservation Center — located along Olinda Road in Makawao, directly adjacent to Kula — appears to show a flash in the woods around their property at 10:47 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 7. The Washington Post originally reported on the video, which the conservation center shared to its Instagram page over the weekend. In that social media post, Jennifer Pribble, a senior research coordinator at the organization, suggested the flash may have happened after a tree fell on a power line during strong winds.

"I think that is when a tree is falling on a power line," Pribble said on Instagram. "The power goes out, our generator kicks in, the camera comes back online, and then the forest is on fire."

A wildfire is seen on the Hawaiian island of Maui, August 8, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Courtesy of Dominika Durisova via Reuters

Echoing wildfire experts, Gov. Green said on Aug. 11 that he believes a confluence of weather conditions contributed to the ignition and spread of the blazes.

"It is a product, in my estimation, of certainly global warming combined with drought, combined with a super storm, where we had a hurricane offshore several hundred miles, still generating large winds," Green told CNN.

"The winds were just getting out of control. Power lines were down everywhere.," Maui resident J.D. Hessemer, who owned a business in Lahaina, later told "CBS Mornings." "We just decided it was not safe to stay around for the day."

The National Weather Service noted in a tweet before the fires started that significant differences in atmospheric pressure between the hurricane and the air north of Hawaii formed a pressure gradient over the islands which, when combined with dry conditions, posed a serious threat of fires as well as damaging winds.

"While Hurricane Dora passes well south with no direct impacts here, the strong pressure gradient between it & the high pressure to the north creates a threat of damaging winds & fire weather (due to ongoing dry conditions) from early Mon to Wed," the agency said at the time.

Claims surfaced in the following days that Hawaiian Electric, which operates Maui Electric and services 95% of the state overall, did not implement precautionary safety measures included in an emergency plan to reduce wildfire risks ahead of the storm. Citing documents, a Washington Post report noted that the provider did not shut off electricity to areas where strong winds were expected and could spark flames.

A spokesperson for Maui Electric told CBS News in a statement that some steps were taken to mitigate the possibility of fires sparking before hurricane winds arrived.

"Hawaiian Electric has a robust wildfire mitigation and grid resiliency program that includes vegetation management, grid hardening investments and regular inspection of our assets," the company's statement said. "The company has protocols that may be used when high winds are expected, including not enabling the automatic reclosure of circuits that may open during a weather event. This was done before the onset of high winds. ... At this early stage, no cause for the fire has been determined."

Jennifer Potter, a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, told the news site Honolulu Civil Beat that she believes "there should have been greater alarms raised" by the commission to Hawaiian Electric as forecasts began to warn of the hazardous wind conditions. Potter said the utilities commission should have pushed the electric company to implement a power shut-down protocol ahead of time to mitigate wildfire risks, noting that Hawaii has seen a rise in both the size and intensity of fires in recent years.

Maui County announced on Aug. 28 it had sued Hawaiin Electric and several of its subsidiaries, alleging the utility failed to power down its equipment as the storm was approaching and that downed, energized power lines ignited the blazes.

"The lawsuit also alleges failure to maintain the system and power grid, which caused the systemic failures starting three different fires," the county said in a statement.

Firefighting efforts and emergency response

A number of agencies were called to respond to wildfires on Maui as the blazes spread rapidly over the island on Tuesday, Aug. 8, although weather conditions linked to Hurricane Dora hindered some of those efforts. National Guard helicopters activated as part of the state's emergency response to the wildfires were grounded as the wind gusts picked up that evening.

A state emergency proclamation authorized the deployment of National Guard troops and extended the state of emergency. President Biden approved a federal disaster declaration on Thursday, Aug. 10. 

Maui's warning sirens were not triggered as the fast-moving fires began to spread. Instead, the county used emergency alerts sent to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations.

When asked by reporters on Aug. 16 whether he regretted not activating the sirens, Herman Andaya, the former chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, responded "I do not."

"The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the sirens are sounded," Andaya said, noting that the sirens are generally used to warn of tsunamis or approaching storms.  

"Had we sounded the sirens that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka (mountainside), and if that was the case, they would have gone into the fire," Andaya said. "So that is the reason why, it is our protocol, to use WEA [Wireless Emergency Alerts] and EAS [the Emergency Alert System]."

Andaya explained that the agency's "internal protocol" for wildfires is to use both WEA — text alerts sent to cell phones — and the EAS, which are alerts sent to television and radio. 

"In a wildland fire incident, the (siren) system has not been used, either in Maui or in other jurisdictions around the state," Andaya said.

However, with power knocked out in the area and no television or radio, residents reported receiving no text alerts or television or radio notifications.  

Making matters worse, residents said the fire hydrants ran out of water, hindering firefighters' ability to contain the blazes. FEMA officials confirmed there was an issue that affected the hydrants' water supply.

Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez announced Aug. 11 that her agency would conduct a "comprehensive review of critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires." 

What about Hawaii's warning sirens? 

Hawaii has a statewide outdoor warning siren system, which can be used to notify residents ahead of natural disasters or human-caused events, including tsunamis, hurricanes, dam breaches, flooding, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, terrorist threats and hazardous material incidents, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.  

However, the island's warning sirens were not activated on Aug. 8. Addressing reporters on Aug. 16, Herman Andaya, chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, defended his decision not to activate the sirens. 

"The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the sirens are sounded," Andaya said, noting that the sirens are generally used to warn of tsunamis or approaching storms.

"Had we sounded the sirens that night, we were afraid that people would have gone mauka (mountainside), and if that was the case, they would have gone into the fire," Andaya said. "So that is the reason why, it is our protocol, to use WEA [Wireless Emergency Alerts] and EAS [the Emergency Alert System]."

WEAs are text alerts sent to cell phones and the EAS uses television and radio, Andaya explained.

Hawaii's official government website lists "wildfires" as one of the hazards the siren alert system can be used for. However, with power knocked out in the area and no television or radio, residents reported receiving no text alerts or television or radio notifications.   

In the wake of the criticism over the response to the fire, Andaya, who CBS News learned had no background in disaster response, resigned his position on Aug. 17 citing "health reasons." Green later said he wished "all the sirens went off."

"Everybody who has ever lived in Hawaii knows the warning sirens. It goes off once a month, every month, at 12 noon and it blares. And if it doesn't, it gets fixed because that is our first line of defense,"  Rep. Jill Tokuda of Hawaii said said Aug. 13 on "Face the Nation."

"The reality is, with those warning signs, it tells all of us to turn on the television or look on our phones or turn on the radio," she went on. "With how fast this burn was ... if you turned on your phone, if you turned on a radio, if you even could ... you would not know what the crisis was. You might think it's a tsunami, by the way, which is our first instinct. You would run towards land, which in this case would be towards fire."   

As the fires raged, crews rescued 17 people who jumped into the Lahaina harbor in an effort to escape the flames, the U.S. Coast Guard said. On Front Street, a popular tourist destination, business owner Alan Dickar described seeing buildings on both sides of the street "engulfed" in flames. "There were no fire trucks at that point; I think the fire department was overwhelmed," Dickar told CBS Honolulu affiliate KGMB-TV

Speaking later to CBS News' Patrick Torphy, he added: "Maui can't handle this. ... A lot of people just lost their jobs because a lot of businesses burned. A lot of people lost their homes. ... This is going to be devastating for Maui."

How do wildfires usually start?

Almost 85% of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans, according to the National Park Service. Fires that are sparked this way can result accidentally from leaving campfires unattended, burning debris, using various kinds of equipment and discarding cigarettes improperly. Intentional acts of arson are another source of human-caused wildfires, the agency says.

Lightning and volcanic activity are two natural causes of wildfires, although officials note that lightning strikes are a much more common catalyst. 

Certain weather can ignite and help spread fires, with strong winds, low relative humidity, unstable atmospheric conditions and thunderstorms contributing to what meteorologists call "fire weather," said Nick Nauslar, a meteorologist and former weather forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center, in a 2018 FAQ published by the agency. 

Most often, lightning strikes a tree and ignites a fire, but strong winds can also spark power lines that go on to ignite wildfires when there is dry brush or grass in the area, according to NOAA, which says wildfires can spread quickly in hot, dry and windy conditions — especially when those conditions happen simultaneously. The wildfire season has been severe in Canada and across North America this year, as warm and dry conditions persist while various sections of the continent experience record heat and drought as a result of climate change.

Fire damage is seen on Aug. 12, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Maui Fire officials had warned in an alert issued Tuesday, Aug. 8, that "erratic wind, challenging terrain, steep slopes and dropping humidity, the direction and the location of the fire conditions make it difficult to predict path and speed of a wildfire." It noted that "fires can start at a far distance from their source" when wind pushes embers upward and sparks are ignited downwind.

"The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house," said Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea in a statement included in the alert. "Burning airborne materials can light fires a great distance away from the main body of fire."

Where are the fires in Maui?

The Lahaina wildfire was one of four blazes that broke out on Maui on Aug. 8, scorching a combined 10.4 square miles. Three of the four fires were still burning as of Aug. 27.

Two of the fires had originally been referred to as a single blaze, the Upcountry/Kula fire. But Maui County officials said on Aug. 17 they were determined to be two fires with "distinct origins" and, moving forward, they would be reported separately as the Olinda and Kula fires, officials said.

Those two fires broke out on the eastern side of the island and have destroyed 19 homes. Terrain surrounding the fires in the Upcountry region made extinguishing the flames difficult, and firefighters battling those two blazes were still dealing with "hot spots in gulches, forests and other hard-to-reach places," more than a week after the fires began.   

The Olinda Fire has scorched 1,081 acres and was 85% contained as of Aug. 27, while the Kula Fire burned about 202 acres and was 90% contained, officials said.

The Lahaina fire, which has burned 2,170 acres, was 90% contained on Aug. 27.

The county has noted that even when a fire is 100% contained, that does not mean it has been extinguished but that firefighters had it "fully surrounded by a perimeter." 

Map shows the location of fires on the island of Maui, Hawaii, on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.  AP


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