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How Fire Turned Lahaina Into a Death Trap

(NYT) When a historic coastal town in Hawaii was overrun by fire, many residents fled for their lives — but there was nowhere to go.

Only three hours before she found herself huddled in the Pacific Ocean, a barrage of embers and ash hurtling above her, Chelsea Denton Fuqua was lounging in bed with a fan, a pristine blue sky outside the window of her home that lies half a mile from the Lahaina waterfront on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

It was moments later when she caught a glimpse of smoke in the distance. At first it was a wisp, but within minutes it had grown thicker, rippling down the hillside on violent winds.

Ms. Denton Fuqua, 32, and her husband were worried. They had received no text alerts, no sirens, no evacuation orders — no sign for her and her neighbors, she said, that Lahaina, a community of 13,000 that was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, was on the cusp of incineration.

But they knew what could happen in a wildfire. They grabbed a few essentials and prepared to leave in their cars. “People were just like, ‘Oh, are you heading out?’” Ms. Denton Fuqua recalled. “‘All right, be safe.’”


What Happened in Lahaina Last Tuesday

The deadly blaze spread through town in just a few hours, offering little time to escape.
Map of Lahaina highlighting the footprint of the fire, as well as a timeline of key events. The events begin inland and end on the waterfront. The timeline reads: 1. 6:37 a.m. A brush fire is reported in this area. Less than three hours later, officials declare it “100% contained.” 2. 3:30 p.m. County officials close Lahaina Bypass because of a flare-up. 3. 3:42 p.m. Officials close Lahainaluna Road between the highway and the bypass. 4. 5:19 p.m. A video shows the town’s historic Front Street on fire. 5. 5:33 p.m. A video shows people seeking protection in the water.

As the fire spread further into town, the problems multiplied: Hydrants ran dry as the community’s water system collapsed, according to firefighters. Powerful sirens, tested every month in preparation for such an emergency, never sounded. Lahaina’s 911 system went down.
Many of those who evacuated said they were corralled by road closures and downed power lines into traffic jams that left some people to burn alive in their cars and forced others to flee into the Pacific. Videos shared with The Times and posted on social media show cars on Front Street crawling in bumper-to-bumper traffic as smoke, embers and debris billow around them.


A power line and a ‘pop’

It was shortly after sunrise on Aug. 8 and wind was already blustering down Lahaina’s west-facing slope when Shane Treu clambered onto his roof near Lahainaluna Road to repair some damage. Pieces of roofing and heavy panels for a solar water heater had been blown off and were landing on his fence.

That’s when he heard a sound from a nearby power line.

“The wind is still blowing super strong and I hear a pop,” Mr. Treu recounted. “I look and the line is just arcing, laying on the ground and sparking.” The power line, landing in dry grass, was “like a fuse,” he said. It blackened the ground at the base of a power pole and began to ignite nearby yards.
It was precisely the location where the brush fire that would eventually engulf much of Lahaina was initially reported, at 6:37 a.m., a Times analysis of video and satellite imagery shows.

Shane Treu streamed a Facebook live video of the early morning fire near Lahainaluna Road.

Mr. Treu began filming with his phone, panning across three power lines on the ground. One could be seen dangling in charred, smoking grass. “That’s the power line that started it,” he said on the video. In an interview, Mr. Treu said he called 911 as the fire grew, across the street from his house. It took six minutes for the police to arrive, he said, and another six for the firefighters; a water tanker and two front-end loaders arrived to create a fire break.

County officials reported that the fire was “100% contained” by 9 a.m.

Mr. Treu said he resumed his repairs and then had his son drive him to one of his two jobs. In the back of his mind, he found himself wondering whether the fire might flare up again.

It did.

New York Times, August 15, 2023

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