Maui fires: Hawaii officials face scrutiny over not sounding sirens

More than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for, governor says

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The head of Maui's emergency agency has sought to fend off criticism for not sounding sirens that would have alerted people to deadly fires that tore through the island.

At least 110 people were killed when the town of Lahaina was hit by the fires, with residents saying they were not aware of the risk until they saw the flames.

Hawaii created outdoor alert systems after a deadly tsunami in 1946. Herman Andaya, head of Maui's Emergency Management Agency, said the agency was fearful that residents would flee towards the flames if the sirens were sounded the night they began.

“The sirens are used primarily for tsunamis. The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded.”

Without sirens, residents had to rely on mobile devices and television coverage. But communication channels were limited due to knocked-out power lines and mobile networks.

Mr Andaya also questioned whether people could have heard the sirens, particularly those who lived on higher ground.

When asked if he regretted not activating the sirens, Mr Andaya said, “I do not”.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green defended the decision. He has also ordered the state's attorney general to launch a review of the emergency response.

Avery Dagupion, whose family’s home was destroyed in the fire, told the Associated Press that residents were angry over the lack of warnings. He also said an August 8 announcement from Maui Mayor Richard Bissen – saying the fire had been contained – gave people a false sense of security.

Mr Bissen fought back on criticism during a news conference.

“The people who were trying to put out these fires lived in those homes – 25 of our firefighters lost their homes. You think they were doing a halfway job?” he said.

Maui County on Wednesday night released more names of the 111 confirmed victims: Melva Benjamin, 71; Virginia Dofa, 90; and Alfredo Galinato, 79 – all residents of Lahaina.

The death toll is still expected to rise as workers continue search efforts. More than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for, Mr Green said.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were scheduled to provide an update on federal recovery efforts on Thursday afternoon.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: August 18, 2023, 5:15 AM