Maui Official Defends Not Sounding Warning Sirens For Deadly Fire

"The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded,” emergency administrator Herman Andaya explained.

The Maui official who oversees emergencies on the island said late Wednesday that he does not regret the decision not to sound emergency sirens when deadly wildfires began sweeping the town of Lahaina, saying doing so would have likely led to more harm than good.

Maui County Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya defended his decision when pressed by a reporter during a news conference about the fast-moving fires, which have killed at least 111 people. He explained that the sirens could have sent people into the heart of the blaze in the mountains.

“Had we sounded the siren that night, we’re afraid that people would have gone mauka,” a phrase referring to the mountainside, he said. “And if that was the case, then they would have gone into the fire.”

The sirens, Andaya continued, “are used primarily for tsunamis, and that’s the reason why many of them are found ― almost all of them are found ― on the coastline. The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded.”

Other counties in Hawaii “will tell you that sirens have not been used for brushfires,” he continued. Instead, his office decided to send out warnings via Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, which sends sounds and texts out to cellphones, and the Emergency Alert System, or EAS, which blasts warnings on TV and radio.

However, those systems rely on cell towers and electricity, and much of the island lost power during the wildfires.

“We didn’t even know that the power was necessarily down,” Andaya said. “We do know that there were people who did receive the alert and notifications. We do know that many people were able to evacuate as a result.”

Andaya’s explanation comes as Lahaina residents say they weren’t warned about the approaching disaster at all and questioned why officials didn’t sound the sirens, which a Maui government website says may be used for fires. Residents say the blaze showed up out of nowhere last week, with many only evacuating after learning of the fire through word of mouth or their own smoke detectors.

Hawaii’s attorney general is now investigating the island’s response to the emergency.

More than a thousand people remain unaccounted for, and the death toll is expected to rise significantly. About 80% of Lahaina, a popular tourist destination on the island’s west side, has been destroyed.

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