CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
A burned-out truck in Lahaina was surrounded Monday by a wall of dust cloth.
Five firefighters who fought the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire left the scene that day after nearly eight hours containing the blaze so Maui Electric Co. workers could repair downed utility poles and power lines, one of the firefighters and a Maui County attorney said.
Aina Kohler, a 42-year-old Maui firefighter who lost her home Aug. 8, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an interview that firefighters did everything they were trained to do to ensure the fire was contained before they left the scene.
When her shift started Aug. 8, Kohler was part of a five-person team that replaced firefighters on an engine, ladder truck and tanker who had been working a 3-acre wildfire overnight that burned the south side of Lahainaluna Road, at the bottom southwest corner of Lahaina Intermediate School.
“We would test the wind, walk the (fire) line. … We hadn’t put water on it for two hours before we left. We don’t have anything that can look and see that every single ember is out. … The fire was out as far as we knew it. When we left we were confident it was out, but obviously we were wrong,” said Kohler, a 13-year Maui Fire Department veteran who lost the Lahaina home she shares with her firefighter husband, Jonny Varona, and their two children.
Kohler said her crew sat for hours waiting for the Maui Electric crew, which eventually arrived in three big company trucks.
In the company’s Aug. 27 account of the day of the deadly firestorm, Hawaiian Electric officials acknowledged that it appeared their downed electrical equipment started the Lahaina morning fire, which was later 100% contained by MFD crews who left the scene. But the company contends the town was leveled by a “second fire” that began in the afternoon, hours after the company’s equipment had been “de-energized.”
MFD declared the Lahaina fire contained before 9 a.m. Aug. 8, but what county officials called a “flare-up” fueled by wind gusts up to 62 mph would destroy the 5.5-square-mile heart of Lahaina town, killing at least 97, leaving 7,500 homeless and causing about $5.5 billion in damage.
County officials cite ongoing litigation against Hawaiian Electric and other lawsuits seeking to assign liability for the fires as the reason they won’t release a timeline of what the county did or answer any questions. No cause or origin for the Lahaina fires has been determined. An investigation by MFD and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is ongoing with no timetable for completion.
The four-person crew from Napili did not report seeing any flames or smoke in Lahaina on either pass, according to Fiske. The 911 call reporting that the fire had restarted came at 2:54 p.m. Fiske said, and firefighters were dispatched a minute later.
At 3 p.m., flames and smoke were seen near Lahainaluna Road and Kuialua Street from a fire covering an area of about 20 feet by 100 feet and spreading.
Firefighters were able to knock down the head and tail of the Lahaina fire, Fiske said, but the gusting winds lifted glowing embers over their positions and started new fires near the Lahaina Bypass.