Maui wildfires: Maui’s emergency management chief resigns, citing health reasons, a week after start of deadly wildfires


The administrator of Maui’s emergency management agency has resigned, citing health reasons, Maui County said in a news release Thursday, nine days after the deadliest US wildfire in more than 100 years began on the Hawaiian island.

The resignation of Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya is effective immediately, the county said.

“Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will be placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible, and I look forward to making that announcement soon,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said.

Details about the health reasons that Andaya cited were not immediately available. CNN has sought comment from Hawaii Gov. Josh Green.

The wildfires that started August 8 have killed at least 111 people – including children. With the search for victims not halfway over, the devastation wrought by Maui’s wildfires already defies imagination as scrutiny mounts over the cause – and the officials’ response

Most of the burn zone still needs searching, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Wednesday.

“No one has ever seen this that is alive today – not this size, not this number, not this volume,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Wednesday. “And we’re not done.”

The number of residents unaccounted for is “probably still over 1,000,” Green told CNN on Wednesday.

Search crews are expected to keep scouring the charred debris of more than 2,000 burnt homes and businesses for days, the police chief said. Some are working despite immense personal grief.

“Realize that the responders that are going out there are recovering their loved ones and members of their families,” he said.

While the cause of the fires hasn’t been determined, Hawaiian Electric – the major power company on Maui – is facing scrutiny for not shutting down power lines when high winds created dangerous fire conditions. A company that runs a sensor network on Maui says it detected major utility grid faults hours before fires started.

Hawaiian Electric said publicly in 2019 it would conduct drone surveys to identify areas vulnerable to wildfires and determine how to help keep residents and infrastructure safe.

But between 2019 and 2022, Hawaiian Electric invested less than $245,000 on wildfire-specific projects, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing regulatory filings.

Hawaiian Electric also didn’t seek state approval to raise rates to pay for safety improvements until 2022, and the rate hike has yet to be approved, the Journal reported.

In a statement to CNN, the company said it has spent roughly $84 million since 2018 on maintenance and vegetation management in Maui County, including trimming and cutting down trees and upgrading equipment.

“There are many elements of wildfire mitigation that don’t get counted specifically as mitigation activities, including vegetation management, grid hardening and pole replacement and routine line and equipment inspections,” the company said.

While many questions remain, here’s the latest on what we know about the historic fires:

• Fires are still raging: The most destructive blaze, the 2,170-acre Lahaina fire, was 89% contained as of Wednesday night, the County of Maui posted on Facebook.

Several other wildfires are still burning in Maui, including the 1,081-acre Olinda fire, which was 85% contained as of Wednesday, and the 202-acre Kula fire, which was 80% contained, according to Maui County.

“We are spread thin, and we are at multiple locations throughout the island,” Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said. Still, “If something should come, we’re ready for it.”

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• Questions about sirens: Hawaii has one of the largest siren warning systems in the world, but the 80 alarms on Maui stayed silent as flames spread. The sirens are primarily used to warn when a tsunami is approaching the area, and if they had sounded, many residents would’ve gone to the mountainside, where the fire was at its worst, Andaya, the Maui emergency management chief, told reporters a day before his resignation.

• Emergency response will be reviewed: Hawaii’s attorney general will spearhead a review of official decisions in response to the wildfires, her office has said.

• Authorities identify more victims: Melva Benjamin, 71, Virginia Dofa, 90, Alfredo Galinato, 79, Robert Dyckman, 74, and Buddy Jantoc, 79, all of Lahaina, perished in the blazes, Maui County officials said Wednesday. Other victims have been identified by their families.

• Biden set to visit: The White House said the president and first lady will visit Maui on Monday.

Go Nakamura/The New York Times/Redux

Sarah Salmonese sits where her apartment once stood in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Friday, August 11.

Jae C. Hong/AP

Destroyed homes are seen in Lahaina on August 16.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

The state flag of Hawaii flies over a sign in Lahaina that says “tourist keep out” on Wednesday, August 16. Vacationers are being asked to stay home as Maui recovers. Many hotels are housing evacuees.

Bryan Anselm/The New York Times/Redux

A woman lays down flowers and prays on a hillside overlooking the rubble of Lahaina on August 16.

Mike Blake/Reuters

The Lahaina neighborhood of Wahikuli Terrace is seen on Tuesday, August 15.

Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Foster/US Army National Guard

Search-and-rescue workers look through damage in Lahaina on August 15.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

An FBI agent watches as two additional refrigerated storage containers arrive next to the Maui Police Forensic Facility where human remains were being stored in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Monday, August 14.

Rick Bowmer/AP

A spoon lies in the rubble of a home destroyed by the wildfire in Kula, Hawaii, on August 14.

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A volunteer prepares to dock next to a fishing boat to transfer propane tanks that would be ferried to shore in Kaanapali, Hawaii, on August 14.

Bryan Anselm/The New York Times/Redux

Lauren Haley sprays water on hot spots in her Kula neighborhood on August 14.

Rick Bowmer/AP

JP Mayoga, a chef at the Westin Maui Resort, is embraced by his wife, Makalea Ahhee, at the hotel near Lahaina on Sunday, August 13. About 200 employees were living at the hotel with their families.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Volunteers in Kihei, Hawaii, load water onto a boat to be transported to West Maui on August 13.

Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images

People pray during a church service in Wailuku on August 13. The Maui Coffee Attic opened up space for the service after a wildfire destroyed Lahaina’s Grace Baptist Church.

Mike Blake/Reuters

Akanesi Vaa, who escaped the fire in Lahaina with her family, poses for a portrait in Kahului, Hawaii, on August 13.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

People wait in line at a checkpoint to gain access to Lahaina on Saturday, August 12.

Max Whittaker/The New York Times/Redux

Volunteers offload supplies that would be delivered to a distribution center for evacuees in Napili-Honokowai, Hawaii, on August 12.

Go Nakamura/The New York Times/Redux

Honolulu Fire Department responders work in Lahaina on August 11.

Go Nakamura/The New York Times/Redux

This aerial photo shows the shells of burned houses, vehicles and buildings in Lahaina on August 11.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Zoltan Balogh clears away trees that were burned by the wildfire in Kula.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Cars are backed up on the Honoapiilani Highway as residents are allowed back into wildfire-affected areas on August 11.

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Volunteers in Maalaea, Hawaii, watch truckloads of donated food and supplies depart for Lahaina on August 10.

Rick Bowmer/AP

Wildfire wreckage is seen in Lahaina on August 10.

Mengshin Lin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Volunteers stack canned goods at the War Memorial Stadium in Kahului.

Evelio Contreras/CNN

Burned cars sit in Lahaina on August 10.

Marco Garcia/Reuters

Vixay Phonxaylinkham holds his 4-year-old child Lana while they wait for their flight at the Kahului Airport on August 10. Phonoxaylinkham, his wife and their five children were heading back to California. They had been caught in the wildfires, but they survived by spending four hours in the ocean.

Claire Rush/AP

People arrive on school buses to evacuate the Maui airport on August 10.

Evelio Contreras/CNN

Building wreckage is seen in Lahaina on August 10.

Rick Bowmer/AP

Myrna Ah Hee reacts as she waits in front of an evacuation center in Wailuku on August 10. The Ah Hees were looking for her husband’s brother. Their home in Lahaina was spared, but the homes of many of their relatives were destroyed by wildfires.

Mengshin Lin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Puong Sui, center, talks to her daughter at the evacuation center in Kahului on August 10. Sui lost her house and belongings in Lahaina and was planning to fly to Las Vegas to reunite with her family.

Ty O’Neil/AP

A wildfire burns in Kihei on August 9.

Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies

This satellite image shows an overview of wildfires in Lahaina on August 9.

Rick Bowmer/AP

People gather at the Kahului Airport while waiting for flights on August 9.

Hawaii National Guard/Reuters

Helicopters with the Hawaii Army National Guard perform water bucket drops to assist in the firefighting efforts on August 9.

Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/ZUMA

Residents carry their belongings after wildfires swept through Lahaina on August 9.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Passengers try to sleep on the floor of the Kahului Airport while waiting for flights on August 9.

Matthew Thayer/The Maui News/AP

The hall of the historic Waiola Church and the nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames in Lahaina on August 8.

About 38% of the burn zone had been searched as of Wednesday afternoon, and authorities hope to cover much of it by the weekend, the police chief said.

Combing the ashes of what used to be homes, businesses and historic landmarks has been arduous. And identifying those killed won’t be easy, as remains are largely unrecognizable and fingerprints rarely found, the governor said.

U.S. Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Foster/Handout/Reuters

A search, rescue and recovery crew member works a scene of destruction Tuesday in Lahaina.

A genetics team will help identify remains “so that we can make sure that we’re finding who our loved ones are, and that we make the notifications with dignity and honor,” Pelletier said.

Authorities have asked relatives of the missing to provide DNA samples.

Brenda Keau’s husband gave a DNA sample to help find his 83-year-old mother, Keau told CNN. The couple found her home in hard-hit Lahaina burned to the ground.

“We accepted it on the day that we saw that there was no house,” Keau said. “But you never give up hope.”

At least 40 canines from 15 states have joined in the search, said Jeff Hickman of the Hawaii Department of Defense.

“We’ll start to bring closure to those who need it and identify those missing,” he said. “There’s assistance centers helping those who are missing, there’s civilian lists going around and DNA being collected to help make the match and help people find those who are still missing.”

When ferocious winds hurled flames across and quickly overwhelmed crews on August 8, some firefighters knew their own homes could burn.

“The people that were trying to put out these fires lived in those homes – 25 of our firefighters lost their homes,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said Wednesday.

Maui firefighter Aina Kohler was on the front lines that day and stuck to her mission to save lives – even as her house burned to the ground, she told CNN affiliate KITV. By the time flames reached her home, she said, firefighters had run out of water.

“That was honestly the most disheartening thing of my life. I felt the supply, and I’m like: It’s limp. Just leaving a house to burn because we don’t have enough water is like something I’ve never experienced before,” she said.

Two of Kohler’s fellow firefighters also lost their homes while battling the fires, she said.

“They watched their homes burn as they fought the fire for other homes in their neighborhood,” Kohler said. “That hit really hard.”

Kohler’s husband and fellow firefighter Jonny Varona said civilians stepped up to battle the flames, too.

“It’s not just firefighters that were out there risking their lives to help people,” he said. “It was the community. Everybody down there understood what was happening. You couldn’t just let people die without trying to help them.”

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A sensor network run by Whisker Labs detected an “increasingly stressed utility grid” on Maui, beginning late August 7 and into the next morning, the company’s CEO Bob Marshall told CNN on Wednesday.

“Through the overnight hours, when all the fires ignited, we measured 122 individual faults on the utility grid,” Marshall said. A fault – a short circuit or partial short circuit – could cause electric current to leave its intended path, which could lead to a fire, Marshall said.

Video taken at the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Makawao appears to show a power pole faulting just before 11 p.m. on August 7. Soon after, what appears to be flames are seen in the video, first reported by The Washington Post.

The sensor system provided “verification that, indeed, this was very likely caused by a fault on the utility grid,” Marshall said.

The Makawao fire was hours before and miles away from the fire that decimated the historic portions of Lahaina in Western Maui. But sensors detected faults on the grid before that fire, too, Marshall said.

A class-action lawsuit filed over the weekend alleges the wildfires were caused by Hawaiian Electric’s energized power lines that were knocked down by strong winds.

The company and its subsidiaries “chose not to deenergize their power lines after they knew some poles and lines had fallen and were in contact with the vegetation or the ground,” the suit alleges.

Precautionary shutoffs have to be arranged with first responders, Hawaiian Electric Vice President Jim Kelly told CNN on Sunday in an email, adding the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

“Electricity powers the pumps that provide the water needed for firefighting,” Kelly said.

Hawaiian Electric is also eager to find answers, a company spokesperson said.

“We know there is speculation about what started the fires,” spokesperson Darren Pai told The Washington Post. “And we, along with others, are working hard to figure out what happened.”

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