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Questions grow over wildfire warnings as Maui death toll rises

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LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Emergency management records in Hawaii show no indication that warning sirens sounded before people ran for their lives from the Maui wildfires that killed at least 55 people and wiped out a historic city. Instead, officials sent alerts to cellphones, televisions and radio stations – but widespread power and cellphone outages may have limited their reach.

Hawaii has what the state describes as the world’s largest integrated all-hazards outdoor public safety warning system, with approximately 400 sirens positioned across the island chain to alert people to various natural disasters and other threats.

But many survivors said in interviews on Thursday they did not hear sirens or receive a warning giving them enough time to prepare, only realizing they were in danger when they saw flames or heard explosions nearby. The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster since the 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. Governor Josh Green has warned that the death toll will likely rise as search and rescue operations continue.

Thomas Leonard, a 70-year-old retired mail carrier from centuries-old Lahaina, was unaware of the fire until he smelled smoke. Electricity and cellphone service had both been cut earlier in the day, leaving the city without any real-time information about the danger.

He tried to drive away in his Jeep, but had to abandon the vehicle and run for the shore when nearby cars began to explode. He hid behind a dike for hours, the wind blowing hot ash and cinders at him.

WATCH: What fueled the Hawaiian wildfires that killed dozens and razed historic Lahaina

Firefighters eventually arrived and escorted Leonard and other survivors through the flames to safety.

Fueled by a dry summer and high winds from a passing hurricane, at least three wildfires have erupted on Maui this week, cutting through parched brush blanketing the island.

The worst has left Lahaina a grid of ash-gray rubble, wedged between the blue ocean and the verdant slopes. Skeletal remains of buildings bowed under roofs that creaked in the fire. Palm trees were set on fire, boats in the harbor were burned, and the stench of burning lingered.

“Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb has been dropped on Lahaina,” Governor Green said after walking through the town’s ruins Thursday morning with Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr.

Firefighters managed to build perimeters around most of the Lahaina blaze and another near the Kihei resort area, but they were still not fully contained as of Thursday afternoon.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency spokesman Adam Weintraub told The Associated Press that department records do not show Maui’s warning sirens were triggered on Tuesday, when the Lahaina fire started. Instead, the county used emergency alerts sent to cellphones, televisions and radio stations, Weintraub said.

It’s unclear if these alerts were sent before the outages cut off most communications with Lahaina. Throughout the island, in fact, 911, landline and cell phone service failed at times.

Maui Fire Department Chief Brad Ventura said the fire moved so quickly from brush to neighborhoods that it was impossible to transmit messages to the emergency management agencies responsible for the alerts.

“What we experienced was a fire that moved so quickly through the initial neighborhood that ignited, they basically self-evacuated with pretty little notice,” Ventura said.

LEARN MORE: Climate change is causing more wildfires and governments are unprepared, says UN

The blaze is the deadliest wildfire in the United States since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and devastated the town of Paradise.

Lahaina’s fire hazard was well known. The Maui County Hazard Mitigation Plan, last updated in 2020, identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and a large number of buildings at risk of be damaged by forest fires.

The report also noted that West Maui had the second highest rate of vehicleless households on the island and the highest rate of non-English speakers.

“This can limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take prompt action during dangerous events,” the plan notes.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may also have been hampered by a small staff, said Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. There are a maximum of 65 firefighters working in Maui County at any one time, and they are responsible for fighting fires on three islands — Maui, Molokai and Lanai — he said.

Those teams have about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but the department has no all-terrain vehicles, he said. This means that fire crews cannot fully attack bushfires before they reach roads or populated areas.

The strong winds caused by Hurricane Dora made this week’s task particularly difficult. “You’re basically trying to fight a blowtorch,” Lee said.

Mandatory evacuation orders were in place for Lahaina residents, Bissen noted, while tourists in hotels were required to shelter in place so emergency vehicles could enter the area.

The mayor said the downed utility poles added to the chaos as people tried to flee Lahaina, cutting off two major roads out of town, including one leading to the airport. That left only one narrow, winding highway.

Marlon Vasquez, a 31-year-old cook from Guatemala who arrived in the United States in January 2022, said when he heard fire alarms it was already too late to flee in his car.

LEARN MORE: How Hawaii’s fires will wreak havoc on the state’s natural treasures

“I opened the door and the fire was almost above us,” he said from an evacuation center in a gymnasium. “We ran and ran. We ran almost all night and until the next day, because the fire did not stop.

Vasquez and his brother Eduardo escaped through roads jammed with vehicles. The smoke was so poisonous that he threw up. He said he wasn’t sure his housemates and neighbors had managed to get to safety.

Chelsey Vierra does not know if her great-grandmother, Louise Abihai, managed to escape from her residence for the elderly, which witnesses saw go up in flames.

“She doesn’t have a phone. She is 97 years old,” Vierra said. “She can walk. She is strong.”

Relatives monitor shelter lists and call the hospital. “We don’t know who to ask where she went,” said Viera, who fled the flames.

President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster on Maui. Traveling to Utah on Thursday, he pledged the federal response will ensure “anyone who has lost a loved one, or whose home has been damaged or destroyed, will get help immediately.” Biden promised to streamline requests for assistance and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was “sending emergency personnel” to the island.

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