Maui wildfire raises questions over emergency alerts and warning system

Evacuation efforts amid a firestorm in Lahaina became frantic with many survivors saying they had no warning or received no emergency alerts.

The historic town in West Maui is still without electricity and telecommunications as only ash, burned cars and rubble remain. Many people learned of the fire when they smelled smoke or saw flames at their doorstep.

"Nobody saw this coming," said Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier. "We do everything we can to mitigate the threats when they come."

But as homes and businesses burned, all of Maui’s outdoor warning sirens stood silent, officials said.

To make matters worse, some communications systems may have gone offline or failed before wireless warnings were issued.

It’s reminiscent of the 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County wine country when electricity and cellular towers went down and officials never sent a mass wildfire alert.

"I think the problem is focusing all of this on particular agencies or particular operating centers that may be easily overrun," said retired FEMA and CalOES public warning specialist Art Botterell.

A lack of precision is one of the shortcomings of countywide warning systems, Botterell said, especially when they’re issued from a single, centralized place.

The agency that sent the warning can oftentimes be unaware of what’s happening in real-time and where.

"People are going to have to realize that this is a problem that they individually and as neighborhoods need to take on," Botterell said. "They can’t just expect that some government official, somewhere is going to handle this."

In Maui, where wireless emergency alerts were initially sent out, the biggest danger could be the lay of the land.

A map of the island’s hazard mitigation plan shows all of Lahaina in a high wildfire-risk area and advises that "populations with limited access to information may not receive time-critical warning information to enable them to reach places of safety."

Some survivors said they didn’t have time to get out of the town and were forced to jump into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames. Other people are believed to have died in cars or near the shoreline.

"This was clearly an evacuation problem," Botterell said. "Most of our towns are not designed to be evacuated quickly or efficiently."

It could be why Hawaii’s highly touted sirens didn’t sound in Maui or in Lahaina.

Lahaina is a lot like the town of Paradise in Butte County, California where the 2018 Camp Fire claimed lives as residents frantically tried to escape narrow streets with few exit routes.

There are only two ways in and out of Lahaina, with one of the roads blocked by downed lines and power poles, creating difficulty for those desperate to get to safety.

When asked about warnings and attempts to alert people, Hawaii’s governor promised better preparedness moving forward.

"This is going to be a priority," Gov. Josh Green said. "We’ve never experienced a wildfire that affected a city like this before…that does not mean we won’t do everything we can in the future to stop this."

In recent years, campaigns have surfaced across the country urging people to sign-up for public alert warning systems.

But communications experts say it’s going to take new ideas and a new approach to keep neighbors in the know.

"No matter who you’ve trained in advance, somebody else will be in town that day," Botterell said. "If the warnings are not in a form that they comprehend, they may have problems."

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @BrooksKTVU