LAHAINA, Hawaii – For the first time since deadly wildfires raged across Maui in August, some residents of Lahaina will be allowed to return to their homes to see what’s left after Hawaii experienced the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years.
At least 97 people were killed, and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed when the fire swept through Lahaina, forcing residents to jump into the ocean to escape the intense heat from smoke and flames that were devouring the community.
Most areas of Lahaina remain off-limits to residents who have been anxiously awaiting to return to see if their homes are still standing or if they could recover belongings that survived the inferno.
Since the fire, the community has been broken down into zones. As areas are opened for access, visitation or re-entry, Maui County officials will use the zones to communicate to residents the current status of each one.
The first zone cleared for residents and business owners to return to was Kaniau Road in Zone 1C. Residents will be allowed in the zone between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. HST (2 p.m. to 10 p.m. EDT) on Monday and Tuesday.
Residents last week were allowed to apply for vehicle passes to re-enter the zone and were provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear when combing through charred remains of structures.
But while PPE will be provided, high-risk individuals are advised that entering the hazardous area is not recommended.
Those who do enter should wear the PPE and bring extra clothes and bags for recovered belongings. In addition, the PPE should be discarded, and residents should wash their hands and change their clothes for safety.
Shuttles are also being provided to residents allowed to return to Zone 1C if they don’t have a vehicle.
For those who do return, support will be provided, including water, shade, washing stations, portable toilets and medical and mental health care.
The wildfires on Maui occurred due to a combination of a few atmospheric conditions.
Hurricane Dora was spinning to the south of the Hawaiian islands in August, and dry conditions and a strong ridge of high pressure to the north helped to provide the 70-mph wind gusts that allowed the flames to rage out of control once they were ignited.
Residents have criticized local officials since the fires and claim they received little to no warning that their lives were in danger.
Despite the National Weather Service in Honolulu issuing Fire Weather Warnings for the islands in the run-up to the fires, emergency management didn't use all the tools to warn residents of the unfolding disaster.
Maui County officials said outdoor warning sirens were not used to warn residents, and alerts sent to cell phones may not have been received due to poor service hampered by the disaster.
There are at least 80 outdoor warning sirens on Maui, but those have only mainly been used to warn of tsunami threats and during monthly tests.
According to emergency management, the system is not solely devoted to tsunami threats. It can be used during hurricanes, dam breaches, flooding, volcanic eruptions, terrorist threats, hazardous material incidents and wildfires.
Herman Andaya, the former administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, defended his decision not to sound the sirens during the fires because he said he was worried residents would have fled to higher ground toward the flames instead of to the ocean.
Andaya resigned from his position for health reasons days after the fires.