FEMA: Lahaina wildfire was grass-fed, low to the ground, and fast moving; firefighter injured in escape

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Video/interview/edit/story: Wendy Osher (8.12.23)

Wildfire updates for Sunday Aug. 13 are posted: HERE.

The wildfire in West Maui likely started as a grass fire, according to FEMA administrators. Combined with 80 mph winds and a low-fuel, FEMA authorities say the fire was low to the ground, fast moving and outpaced firefighting efforts. This resulted in the loss of at least one fire fighting apparatus vehicle, and severe injuries to a firefighter who was attempting to flee.

Fire outpaces firefighting efforts; apparatus overcome, firefighter recovering from injuries

“The firefighters [made] a very heroic efforts in this. The fire outpaced everything that they could do. It outpaced the amount of water that they could put on it, so they are certainly to be commended for their efforts,” said US Fire Administrator for FEMA, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell.


“It did, unfortunately, overcome at least one apparatus—there’s a couple of apparatus actually, one where the firefighters had to evacuate in a different vehicle. So they all got into a vehicle. One of them—they couldn’t all fit, so one of them unfortunately they held… was held onto and unfortunately partially drug. And so he is severely injured, but he is recovering well. He’s in the hospital on Oʻahu, and so he’s doing well,” said Dr. Moore-Merrell.

“Fourteen firefighters, so far have been identified, and they’ve lost everything. They lost their homes. Others have a lot of devastation. So the fire chief here is continuing to gather that information. And so certainly, they are part of the community, and as they continue to work, we just ask everybody to keep them front of mind, because they continue to work and help with recovery and some of the search and rescue, and yet they too are part of your community who have loss,” said Dr. Moore-Merrell.

West Maui Wildfire was likely began as a grass fire

The fire had some unique characteristics, described as grass-fed, low to the ground and fast-moving.


“From what we observed today—and this again, I’ve only been here a few hours, and was not here during the fire, but from what I observed today, and in talking with the fire chief, it appears that this may have begun as a grass fire. We do not know source of ignition yet. That’s still undetermined, but once the grass began to burn—grass is a fine fuel, and when it’s dry grass, it becomes very fast burning. We call it fine, because it does burn so fast. And so, as those grasses burn and then ignited a structure, then that structure itself becomes fuel. Whatever the organic materials that could burn and the products inside the homes that could burn. So plastics, all of those things—that’s why you’ll hear the mayor and the governor talk about the toxic nature of what’s down there. It’s because of what has burned—the products of combustion. So we watch that happen from structure to structure…, ” said Dr. Moore-Merrell.

Low-fuel, fast moving fire with 80 mph winds
Fuel + air + ignition source = conditions for fire

“We can also tell that it stays horizontal, because if you look up, at some point you’ll see pictures of the trees. You’ll see the trees are burned only so far up. The tops of the trees are not burned in all of the trees. So that means that we had low fuel that was sufficient to continue to cause the fire to continue to burn with those 80 mph winds at some peaks, 60 mph sustained. You had this moving, and it moved where it found fuel. Fire needs those elements. It needs fuel, it needs air, and it has an ignition source, and you had all three in this,” said Dr. Moore-Merrell.

Is there a way to escape in such conditions?
Rapid recognition, situational awareness and finding an evacuation route


“The only hope is in the moment, a rapid understanding of what they were facing, rapid recognition, situational awareness—and you saw that in some of the survivors as we listened to their stories, the understanding of what they were facing —rapid recognition, situational awareness, and you saw that in some of the survivors. And as we listen to those stories. They understood and they moved quickly. We saw a lot of cars that unfortunately they had been overcome down on the oceanfront, as were observed this morning. So it is unknown about the folks that were in those vehicles, but the cars remained there, and so it would have been in the moment understanding what they were facing, and finding the evacuation route,” said Dr. Moore-Merrell.

FEMA search moves from outside to inside structures;
Fatality numbers rise to 93 by Saturday evening

When asked about the search effort and if it is known where the majority of victims are being found, Dr. Moore-Merrell said she did not know.

“The search is ongoing, and so everyone that had been found as of early yesterday [Friday ], when the numbers were at 55 or so, were all outside [of] structures. But since then, the numbers have risen because our search and rescue teams are getting inside the structures. We have USAR teams that have come from Washington state, we have Task Force 1 from Washington State and Nevada. Task Force 1, they are here. Maui County Fire Department has imbeded and engine company or a crew with each of those Task Forces’, and they are spread out searching structures now, and going back to search each of the vehicles as well. And so everything is being searched, and that’s what you’re watching now—because we put additional numbers for search crews and that’s why you’re seeing the fatality numbers go up,” said Dr. Moore-Merrell.

According to Dr. Moore-Merrell, the “X’s” that are spray painted on vehicles means an initial search has been conducted. You’ll see a second marking when it has been searched again. The same is true for the building searches. Five cadaver dogs were working at the site on Saturday, and nine more are on their way, according to Maui police.

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served more than 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.
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