Maui wildfire recovery: Private property debris removal detailed, cultural monitors to be present

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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crews are working to remove hazardous material from the Lahaina fire burned area. The orange X means there is a non-electrical hazard. PC: Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources (8.31.23)

Fire debris removal cleanup is one of the major challenges facing residents, business owners and government agencies during recovery from the historic wildfires that swept across Maui County on Aug. 8. Government officials say debris removal is taking place in phases to ensure the safety and cultural sensitivities of the affected communities.

The Maui Wildfires Disaster damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 Maui properties and will require a coordinated fire debris removal cleanup, according to the County of Maui. The cleanup process includes two phases. Phase 1 is removal of hazardous materials; Phase 2 is removal of other fire-related debris. More on the process is posted HERE.

Emergency Management Agency chief federal response coordinator Robert J. Fenton, Jr., said safety, along with permissions from property and business owners, are key. “No removal will begin without the permission of the property owner,” he said in a County news release. “To the affected residents, please know, we will work with you.”


Hazardous Materials

  • In the first phase, the US Environmental Protection Agency removes hazardous materials such as paints, solvents, oils, batteries and pesticides from all fire-impacted properties.
  • Once local officials are informed that the site is safe, they will notify residents when they may return to their property to retrieve any belongings that may be saved.  

Role of the US Army Corps of Engineers 

  • For the second phase, the State of Hawaiʻi announced that FEMA and the US Army Corps of Engineers will lead the removal of fire-damaged debris from private property. 
  • Property owners are not required to use this service. However, for the safety of the community, property owners who choose to do their own cleanup must still follow local, state and federal requirements. 
EPA training for cultural monitors following Lahaina wildfire disaster. PC: EPA.

Cultural Safeguards


Lahaina was the traditional home of Maui royalty dating back to the 1500s, and later became the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1820. It is also the sacred burial site of early members of the Hawaiian royal family of the Kamehameha line. Several irreplaceable cultural institutions were damaged or destroyed in the fire.

US Environmental Protection Agency incident commander Steve Calanog said, “We know the long rich and historic cultural significance of Lahaina. We have 25 cultural observers on our team to ensure that we proceed with respect.”

  • FEMA reports that the State of of Hawaiʻi and the Corps of Engineers have instituted safeguards to protect sites.
  • Cultural (archaeological) monitors with expertise and knowledge are working within the affected communities and are trained to be sensitive to the cultural significance of their work.
  • Cultural monitors will be present during the removal process. These monitors are local, Maui-based experts, according to a FEMA news release.

“Even with painstaking efforts to recover all of those who died in the fire zone, the extent and heat of the fire may have left behind human remains that cannot be distinguished from the fire debris for respectful removal, identification and return to family members. Fire debris removal efforts will include additional resources to address these circumstances,” according to FEMA.

PC: County of Maui

Debris Removal Efforts

  • Property owners who opt into the debris removal program are required to sign a right-of-entry form and submit it to Maui County officials before removal begins. 
  • Maui officials will provide these completed forms to the Corps of Engineers so they can access fire-damaged private property.
  • Maui County is required to collect right-of-entry forms from property owners participating in the debris removal program. 
  • Your permission is needed so government-authorized contractors can go onto your property and remove fire-damaged debris.
  • Signing a right-of-entry form does not transfer ownership of the property. It only allows the government and/or its authorized contractors to go onto private property to remove the debris.
  • After the Environmental Protection Agency has removed hazardous materials, it is your right as the property owner not to participate in the private debris removal program. If you choose to remove all or some of the debris through a private contractor, you are required to meet or exceed the standards set by local, state and federal agencies. More information will be provided by Maui County.

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