As fires ripped through a West Maui community, people in car after car rushed to get out of town on what was the only paved road.
And a barricade that stopped people from getting on Highway 30 sent car after car right back toward the wildfire that was growing quickly.
A particular family drove through the roadblock and became safe in a town that was nearby forty-eight minutes later. A different family drove their 4-wheel-drive vehicle down a dirt road to get away. One guy took a dirt road higher, climbed above the fire, and watched as Lahaina burned. Later, he picked a path through the fire, smoke, and wreckage to pull people to safety.
But several dozen other individuals were stuck in a hellscape, with fire on the first three sides and rough waves of the sea on the fourth. Their cars were all crammed together on the narrow roadway. Some people perished in their cars, and others tried to get away.
“From the bypass, I was able to see that many were trapped on the balconies, so I rushed down to see what was going on,” said Kekoa Lansford, who returned to town multiple times to search for survivors. Lansford said that what he saw was terrible, like a scene from a hellish movie, with bodies everywhere and fires. “I could see that some individuals were on fire and it appeared that the wind was just fanning the flames and pushing them toward the houses.”
Some roads were closed because of the fire, and others because power lines had fallen. This made ancient Lahaina the scene of the deadliest wildfire in the United States in over a century. But that day had a lot of challenges, and in certain ways, the disaster happened long before the fires.
The area experienced a short drought, which produced an abundance of kindling, and Hurricane Dora, which passed about 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the south of the Hawaiian island chain, delivered high winds to Maui. More than 30 power poles fell over in West Maui, and Hawaiian Electric didn’t have a plan to turn off the grid, which is a normal thing to do in other U.S. states where fires are common. A neighbor of Lahaina took a video of a broken powerline setting dry grass on fire. This could show where the bigger fire started.
And when the fire started to eat up homes in its path, emergency officials in Maui County decided not to use a large network of emergency sounds to warn people in Lahaina to leave.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier declared at a news conference that officers were driving up and down roads, knocking on doors, and using microphones to inform people to evacuate, but he did not specify where or when this happened. The Associated Press has asked Maui County for public records, such as location reports, videos, and internal messages, to find out more about how the police and fire departments responded. However, Maui County hasn’t yet provided them with this information.