Originating on August 8 on Maui Island, the fires have claimed 111 lives as of Thursday, with the count expected to surge during ongoing search efforts.
Residents recounted a lack of evacuation alerts when the fires ignited, and the island’s 80 emergency warning sirens remained silent for evacuation.
The Maui County Emergency Management Agency, accountable for activating the sirens, has come under intense scrutiny for not activating the system prior to the calamity.
The agency’s director, Herman Andaya, tendered his resignation on Thursday amidst mounting criticism for the agency’s response. Nevertheless, his official statement, published on Maui County’s Facebook page, cited health reasons for his decision.
Andaya defended the agency’s stance during a media briefing, explaining that the siren system primarily intended to alert the public about tsunamis. He expressed apprehension that activating the sirens on the night of the fires might have inadvertently guided people towards the fires on the mountainside.
According to Andaya, the siren system had never been utilized for wildfires, whether on Maui or in any other part of the state. Hawaii Governor Josh Green lent support to Andaya’s reasoning, stating during the briefing that sirens during the wildfires would have evoked anticipation of a tsunami.
The county’s siren system serves as a warning mechanism for natural disasters and emergencies. It comprises outdoor sirens, broadcasts on television and radio, and wireless alerts dispatched to cellphones. Although the agency did trigger warning systems for cellphones, TV, and radio, widespread power outages and signal disruptions limited their reach due to strong winds causing electrical and cell service failures on the island.
Notably, the sirens are solar-powered and can operate during power outages. Nonetheless, experts remain uncertain about the sirens’ potential impact on the Maui fires. Sarah DeYoung, a University of Delaware professor, pointed out that sirens inherently possess limitations as they cannot provide specific instructions to people. Despite these constraints, DeYoung stressed the importance of furnishing more information rather than inadequately.
The emergency response of Maui County is presently under scrutiny by the Hawaii Attorney General’s office.