How a Paradise Became a Death Trap (2023)

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sabrina tavernise

From “The New York Times,” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. And this is “The Daily.”

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On Monday, we heard the story of Waiola Church and what was lost in the wildfires on Maui. What we didn’t know then was the sheer scale of the catastrophe, what it felt like to experience it, and how it could be that so many people died, 111 in the latest count.

Today, the miraculous story of one man who survived and my colleague in Hawaii, Mike Baker, on how an extraordinary set of circumstances came together to turn Lahaina into a death trap.

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It’s Friday, August 18.

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[PHONE RINGS]

ydriss nouara

Hello?

sabrina tavernise

Hi. Is this Ydriss?

ydriss nouara

Yes, it is. Hi.

sabrina tavernise

Ydriss, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. And I wonder, Ydriss, if you could introduce yourself for me? Tell me your name, your age, where you live, and what your profession is.

ydriss nouara

My name is Ydriss Nouara. I’m 32 years old. I lived on Prison Street in Maui, Lahaina. And I was the manager at a Hilton property of the beach and pool. I work in sales.

sabrina tavernise

Got it. And I wonder if you could start by telling us just, kind of from the beginning, how your day started?

ydriss nouara

So actually, it was my first true day off in a long time. And I woke up in the middle of the night, which was Monday night, Tuesday morning, around 3:00 or 4:00 AM, when we lost power. So it got pretty hot. So I opened up the windows. And by the time I woke up around 6:00, 7:00 AM, I noticed we didn’t have service, neither.

sabrina tavernise

Cell service?

ydriss nouara

Yeah, no more phone service. No power. It was very windy. So I texted the front desk manager to ask him about my staff. I wanted to make sure they were safe, and they told me that they were keeping the pool open.

And honestly, I was just annoyed. I was like, I’ve been waiting for this day off forever, and no power. It’s windy. And I was kind of complaining.

sabrina tavernise

[LAUGHS]:

ydriss nouara

No one knew that it was going to get to that point. We didn’t even know it was a hurricane. We just thought it was windy. So I went on with my day and put up the cabinets in my bathroom. And then I started reading my Kindle, and that was pretty much just one of those days.

sabrina tavernise

And were you aware of the fire at that point?

ydriss nouara

Oh, absolutely not. There was no fire in the morning that I was aware of. We had no warnings at all.

sabrina tavernise

Hmm.

ydriss nouara

And so I think it was around noon or 1:00. One of my neighbors came and knocked on my door. And he said, hey, you need to come out and see this. So I came out in front of my house. I have a little cottage. Behind my house, I could see a lot of smoke. And it was kind of far, maybe a mile, maybe a little less than a mile away.

And it was a lot of smoke. It was a black smoke. I was like, well, something’s burning. And all our neighbors were meeting. They were talking about an escape plan. And I said, it’s kind of far away. We have scooters and bikes, and I don’t think it’s safe to be on the road anyways. We’ll be safer in our homes.

So I called my cat. It’s an outdoor cat. And I called her, and I couldn’t find her all day. And then I just gave up and I went home, and I closed my door.

And then my neighbor came back maybe an hour later. And he said, there’s another fire and it was closer. It was actually the street behind us.

And I have a scooter, so I actually went to go check out how close the fire was. And it was pretty close but still kind of far away. It was in front of an apartment complex. And right across from that, there was another house. And there were bushes that were starting to catch on fire.

So I parked my scooter, and I ran into the yard. And I was looking for the neighbors to ask them for their hose, because I wanted to — it was small enough to put down. And so I saw the neighbors. They were already in their car, in the driveway. So I knocked on the window, and the guy didn’t even say — he didn’t even respond. I don’t remember him responding.

And by the time I went back in the garden to find the hose, another guy saw it and grabbed it. And we were pulling it down to the fire in his bushes. And after that —

sabrina tavernise

God.

ydriss nouara

— I got on Front Street, which is the street that goes along the ocean. And I see there’s this restaurant up in flames. And I’m like, OK. What’s going on? Like, how is this this big? It just didn’t make sense.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

ydriss nouara

It didn’t make sense. So I couldn’t go through. There was so much smoke and fire.

sabrina tavernise

What time is it at that point, Ydriss? What time is it?

ydriss nouara

I think, like, 2:30. It had to be 2:00 or 2:30, something like that. And I remember seeing a white SUV and this Asian woman was trying to cut in line, but she couldn’t even cut in line. Clearly, she was panicking. And I saw people running.

And straight in front of me, there’s a medical center. And I remember, actually, seeing a line of people trying to get into medical center. They were all sitting in front of it, and it’s a big parking lot. So they were taking shelter in it. It was pretty bad. It was pretty bad. That was on Front Street.

And so I made a right. I turned my head. And behind me, there’s a whole business on fire. I was like, holy — like, what’s going on? Everything was on fire. Like, I didn’t understand how things started to catch on fire. It didn’t make sense. And now, I started to panic. So I went back to the neighbors, but the neighbors were all gone.

sabrina tavernise

Ydriss, what did you think at that moment when you came back to your house and the neighbors were all gone?

ydriss nouara

I felt kind of lost. And there was wind and there were trees falling down. And I screamed for my cat, and I saw her run under the house, and she didn’t want to come out. So I was panicking. Reality started to set in.

And so I said, OK. Maybe the safest place to be right now is here, because I wouldn’t even know where to go. And so I’m closing the door. In about five minutes, everything turned black outside.

And so I opened the curtain and I saw that medical center across the street was up in flames to the sky.

sabrina tavernise

Oh, my god.

ydriss nouara

And I couldn’t understand. I said, how? Like, I just saw people. Like, there was nothing, like, 5, 10 minutes ago. And it really looked like someone put gasoline all over the building and it just, like, took up in flame. It just didn’t make sense how a stone building could burn so fast.

And so I opened the door, still calling my cat. And I felt something burning on my shoulder, and it was debris, like, embers. And I looked up in the sky, and it’s just literally fire coming down from the sky. It was raining fire. And now, I said I have to get out of here.

sabrina tavernise

What time was that, Ydriss?

ydriss nouara

About 3 o’clock, I’d say. I noticed that the neighbors had turned all the hose and got everything wet. So I took one of the hose and got my door wet and was trying to — we still thought that we could prevent anything from happening.

sabrina tavernise

Yeah.

ydriss nouara

And so I got everything I could, all the necessities, clothes and wallet and pictures or whatever and put everything in two big bags. And I ran out of the house. And as I ran out of the house, there was smoke everywhere.

And I saw one of my neighbors coughing. He was right in front of the house, in front of the street. And he was just coughing. And I was like, what are you doing here? He’s like, oh, I went to the store. And I said, OK. Let’s get on my scooter. So he came behind me on my scooter.

And the fire came from uphill. It was coming down. So to me, the safest place, if there’s fire, is water. And so in the panic, I was like, we have to go to the harbor. And then I couldn’t even get on Prison Street because there was a power line that was down. It was moving so fast with the wind, and there was so much smoke.

So I went in the parking lot across from the medical center that was burning, and it was full of smoke. And I almost hit a car that was parked, but it was on. I saw it with the brake lights, and there was a door open. And this tall Hawaiian man came out. And he was just waving his arms and he was screaming. I didn’t know what he was saying. He was clearly speaking English, but he was just panicked.

I don’t remember. I just remember his face. His eyes and his eyebrows were just raised up to the max, and he’s now at — like I said, he was just speaking gibberish to me. And there was so much noise outside, the wind and the explosions. And I didn’t know what he was saying. And there was no way he could — he couldn’t get on the scooter with us.

And then I tried to get out of the parking lot. And we got stuck on one of the curbs. And I told Damon, which was my neighbor. I said, get up. And we pushed the scooter back up. He got back on, and then we got onto Front Street.

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And on Front Street, that was just chaos. I could hear screams. And then I couldn’t see people, but I could hear them scream. Scary screams. Screams of pain I’ve never heard before. They were clearly people burning alive. Like, it was a deep pain and people were throwing up. And it was just horrifying. It was horrifying to hear that.

I’m so glad I couldn’t see. It was black because there was so much smoke, but we could clearly hear them all around us, all around us. It felt like we were in hell.

The wind itself — the wind was the scariest thing. The wind was so hot, it was burning our skin. It was so strong because everything was on fire. It felt like someone was pressing a blow dryer on your skin.

And I told Damon, listen, I can’t see anything. And you got to tell me when to turn to the harbor because I can’t see nothing. And so we finally got to the harbor, and I left my scooter there. And at the edge of the water on the harbor, there’s a little house, a little — it’s called the harbor master’s hut. And it’s where people come and buy their tickets for the ferry. It’s a little brick house, very small.

And we go in and we go in front of it. So we had our back against the wall, and we were facing the ocean. Now, we’re just waiting. We just didn’t know what to do.

sabrina tavernise

Did you say anything to him?

ydriss nouara

No, we were not talking. We didn’t know. I mean, in my mind, I’m like, OK, we’re going to wait here. At least this water — which was crazy, by the way. It was so windy. And at least we’re not going to burn. That’s what I was thinking.

But a couple of minutes waiting there, I saw a shadow just run and jump in the water on the side of the house. And I said Damon, do you see this? And we just look in the water. There’s a big pit bull just drowning in front of us.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

ydriss nouara

And that’s really when it felt like the beginning of a movie, like a horror movie. He must have been really scared to do that, because he clearly didn’t know how to swim.

And the pit bull was so intimidating. He had the big head and yellow eyes. And I wanted to help him, but I didn’t know if he was going to bite me or pull me with him in the water. So I kept calling him and calling him, but he couldn’t do it. He tried his best to do it, but he couldn’t do it. And his head kept going underwater, and he kept coming up. And it was always less and less.

And I’ll never forget the look he gave me in his eyes. Like, he just gave up and his head went underwater. And I told Damon to hold my feet. And I took my shirt off, and I somehow managed to grab it by the collar and pull him out. And we gave him water, and we tried to calm him down. He was just walking in circles. He was trying to leave. But every time he walked on the edge of the house, the wind was so hot, he would just turn around and come back. So I tried to calm him down. He was sitting next to me and he would sit next to Damon. He was in a panic mode.

And we’re talking to him, and then I called the police. And I said, hey, we’re on the harbor. We’re stuck. You guys have to come get us. And the lady was just — she didn’t know what to say. She said, I’m sorry. We can’t come get you. Everything was in flames and they were overwhelmed.

I hung up. And I just remember seeing debris falling from the sky. And our bags kept catching on fire, so we kept trying to remove the debris on ourselves every time it fell on our skin, trying not to burn.

sabrina tavernise

Wow. What time was that, approximately?

ydriss nouara

I think it was about, maybe 4 o’clock at this point.

Miraculously, I saw on my phone that I had one bar service. So I tried to call my best friend, Yasin. And I told my best friend, hey, I love you. Tell everybody I love them. It’s going to be OK. Here’s my mom’s number. Don’t call her now. Wait. Let her sleep and then tell her tomorrow we don’t have service and I’m fine. I don’t want her to wake up and see the news and panic. So he was confused. Like, what’s going on? What do you mean?

sabrina tavernise

Were you preparing because you thought you might not make it?

ydriss nouara

Oh, yeah. We didn’t think we were going to make it. I looked up in the sky. And I said, god, please, not today. Not like this. And I said, god, I’m sorry for everything and I want to be better. And I didn’t think I was going to make it.

And after I hung up with him, I called the police again and she gave me the same answer. She said, I’m so sorry. And I could feel the frustration in her voice. She was just helpless. She didn’t know. And I felt so bad for her, because she probably had so many calls like this. And so I hung up again, and I was just frustrated.

So at this point I thought maybe I could get into harbor master’s hut, the little house. Damon had a knife with him, and he cut the screen off. And I started punching the window with all my strength, all my strength until I fractured my hand. The window was so thick, it wouldn’t even do anything.

And so I called the police a third time. And I said, if you guys don’t come right now, we’re going to die. And she said, you guys have to jump in the water.

And I said, no way. You want us to jump in a hurricane at night with all this smoke? Like, there’s no way we can jump. The water was crazy. And she said, you have no choice. You have to jump in the water.

And I hung up. And I looked at Damon. And I was like, we have to jump. And Damon said, there’s no way I’m jumping. I’m not jumping. And I told him, listen, either we burn or we drown.

And I waited a couple more minutes. I tried to convince him. And I said, I’m jumping. There were rocks maybe 100 feet away or 150 feet. I’m not really good with distance, but a jetty. And I decided to make for it. And I tried my best, but I was breathing smoke the whole time. And you were swimming. You were going nowhere. You’re fighting waves, like, the ocean. You can’t do anything. I’m not the best swimmer.

And I finally made it. And I looked back and I screamed at Damon. And he was just terrified, and he was not — he was next to the dog. And I told him, jump. And I kept screaming, and he just didn’t want to.

And so on the other side of the jetty, I saw three surfers sitting down with a surfboard on their back. And I said, I have to ask him for a surfboard to go and get my friend. And they said, there’s no way. The wind is burning our skin. So they were using the surfboard as a shield. Even though we’re in the middle —

sabrina tavernise

God.

ydriss nouara

— of the water, the wind was still that hot. So I went back to the beginning of the rocks where I started. And I could see him hanging on to the harbor with half his body in the water. And I kept screaming, you need to let go! You need to let go! And he screamed, “My shoes are too heavy.”

And so at this time, I just made the decision to jump and go get him. So I got back in the water and I got back next to him. I tried to go and take his shoes off, but I couldn’t even find his feet. The ocean was just pushing me —

sabrina tavernise

God.

ydriss nouara

— against the wall. And I told him, you have to follow me. So I turned back around to the jetty. And I was trying to stay underwater as much as I could because the wind was so hot. But every time I came up, I was just breathing smoke. I mean, I was just breathing smoke for the whole time.

So I got back on the jetty for the second time. And I see he jumped in the water and he was trying to make his way to us.

sabrina tavernise

I see.

ydriss nouara

And the way he was swimming, I said, there’s no way he’s going to make it. He was just struggling, just swallowing water and coughing. And somehow he managed to get very close to the rock, and I pulled him up. It was a miracle that he made it. He’s overweight and he’s older. It was a miracle.

And we still had debris falling on us, and we had waves just coming over us. We were holding on to the rocks to not get pulled or sucked in by the ocean, and it was just a nightmare.

sabrina tavernise

What time was that?

ydriss nouara

I don’t know, maybe 5:30. I don’t remember. It was nighttime. I mean, it looked like nighttime, at least. And then I heard the dog screaming. So I was like, I have to go back. And I jumped back in the water.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

ydriss nouara

I tried to get back in the harbor. I got up and the dog didn’t want to move. He was just too freaked out. He was laying against the wall with his eyes closed and just screaming. There was no way I could carry him. He was a big pit bull, and I had one — and my hand was fractured or broken.

So I thought if I try to grab him in the water, he’s already freaked out. We’re both going to drown. He’s going to die for sure, and I’m probably not going to make it.

sabrina tavernise

Yeah. Yeah.

ydriss nouara

So in one of my bags, I had a blanket, a small blanket for my sofa. And I dipped it in the ocean five or six times, and I put it on top of the dog. That’s all I could do. And I took one of my bags, and I jumped back in the ocean. And then I almost drowned. I was just so exhausted and I panicked halfway.

And I was praying to god, please, help me.

And I thanked god I made it to the jetty, and I went back on the other side. And I talked to Damon, and he was not answering. And I grabbed his hand, and he just held my hand. He was just in shock. He wasn’t saying anything.

And so I was holding Damon’s hand for about a couple of hours, and it felt like the wind calmed down. And I remember I was grabbing Damon’s hand. And I said, oh, the wind kind of calmed down. And as soon as I said that, everything lit up. And I turned around and I saw a line of boats on fire coming towards us.

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And I remember saying to Damon, you got to be kidding me. All the boats that were tied to the harbor, all the ropes burned down. And they were following the current back to sea, and they’re all —

sabrina tavernise

God.

ydriss nouara

— following each other on a perfect line. You would think that someone was on the boat steering them.

sabrina tavernise

Crazy.

ydriss nouara

I had to tell them, you’re seeing this, right? And he’s like, yeah. And they were getting really close to us, almost circling us. You could feel the heat and then they were exploding. And thank god, they followed the current out to sea. They went straight out instead of going all the way around.

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And then maybe an hour after that, I saw a light far away. And I told Damon — I said, hey, I think there’s a boat over there. And we’re screaming. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. And they were coming towards us. Like, thank god. Oh, my god. They were screaming so hard. And the surfer was screaming. And it was the Coast Guard.

And they were like, we can’t get close. You guys have to jump in the water. Because it was so rough, they would crash into the rocks. And then out of nowhere, there’s a couple that were standing in front of the harbor master’s hut, and they had no clothes. They only had shorts or a swimming suit.

And that guy who had shorts, he was just red. Like, he was just burnt —

sabrina tavernise

God.

ydriss nouara

— from the wind. I could see even from there. He was all red. And I kept screaming, jump in the water! Jump in the water! But I don’t think he was just processing anything.

So the Coast Guard came and got him, and then they came to us last. And I jumped first, and they got me in. I just laid down on my back, and I could just see embers just falling on us. Like, the sky had no stars. The embers were the stars, red stars in the sky. That’s what it looked like, just a black sky with red stars just falling down.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I was floating on the ocean, but I felt like I was floating in space. It’s hard to describe because everything happened so fast.

But I was thinking god. I was like, thank you, thank you, thank you! I don’t deserve this. I really just — it was just unbelievable that we made it. And Damon, man, he managed to make it. He managed to get out, get into water. I don’t know how. I didn’t even see him, but I remember they pulled him in. And I was like, thank god we made it.

And I said, oh, how did you guys find us? And they said, we got a call that someone might be on the harbor. So I think that lady, she relayed the call and finally, they got to us. And I said, thank god we made it. And he said, oh, no. Not yet. We still have to go through the storm. And I said, where are we going? And he said, we don’t know. Everything’s on fire.

And I look behind me, and there were just — it was just unbeliev — it looked like war. It was just flames up to the sky, the whole — I mean, the whole town in the darkness. [SIGHS]

sabrina tavernise

How long were you out there on the boat with them?

ydriss nouara

Man, it felt forever, but I think it was a couple of hours, something like that. And remember, I was saying that the couple that came from the harbor, they had no shirts?

sabrina tavernise

Yeah.

ydriss nouara

The guy was burnt everywhere, and he had blood oozing from his leg.

sabrina tavernise

Oh, god.

ydriss nouara

It was pretty bad. And then the girl — it wasn’t as bad. She came and she gave me a pair of underwear to cover the smoke, because there was still smoke out at sea. And I was like, I don’t want to put underwear on my nose. And then I recognized it. And it was my underwear!

sabrina tavernise

Oh, my god. [LAUGHS]

ydriss nouara

And I looked at her, and she was wearing my shirt and my pair of shorts. And I said, where did you get this? And she said, oh, I got it from the harbor.

[laughs]

And I was like — so then I took —

sabrina tavernise

[LAUGHS]: Oh, my god.

ydriss nouara

— the underwear and I covered myself.

[laughs]

And I was like, OK. This is mine.

sabrina tavernise

Did you tell her? What did she say?

ydriss nouara

Yeah! This is my shirt. I bought this in Vegas in 2016.

sabrina tavernise

[LAUGHS]: No.

ydriss nouara

She had to cover herself. I get it. She was in her bathing suit and it was burning, so she was wearing my clothes.

sabrina tavernise

This was all from your backpack?

ydriss nouara

This was from my backpack, yeah, the other one that I left there.

sabrina tavernise

Oh, my gosh.

ydriss nouara

And so we got to Maalaea Harbor. And there were a bunch of Coast Guard waiting for us, and then they grabbed us and made sure we got to land. And they directed us through to a bus, a city bus.

sabrina tavernise

So where did the bus take you?

ydriss nouara

To Maui High School. So they made a shelter there. And I mean, it was just a lot of people, a big TV and the news playing, everybody standing and looking. And then when we arrived, of course, we were covered in soot and all black. So everyone was looking at us. And I was barefoot, so people kept staring at my feet.

Everybody knew we’re the ones who survived, everybody that was in the shelter. We were the lucky ones. So everybody was kind of quiet. It was a quiet night.

And so we signed in with the Red Cross, and I got examined by the nurse. And she listened to one of my lungs, and she said that my lung — I need to get it checked out and my hand as well. She’s like, wow, it’s probably broken. And I got a blanket. And I went and I found the corner of the gym all the way in the back. There was no one. And then I just went by myself. And I just put my headphones on. But I didn’t have anything just to kind of stop the noise, the echoes. I needed to be alone.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

sabrina tavernise

Could you see Damon?

ydriss nouara

Damon was still eating, so he was doing pretty good.

[laughs]

Yeah.

sabrina tavernise

Was he talking to people?

ydriss nouara

Yeah. He was talking to everyone. Yeah. Damon is a chatter. When he called me today, he’s like, I’ll never forget you. He was a little drunk, and I guess he was coping with it. And he said that we were brothers for life now.

sabrina tavernise

Did you think that, too?

ydriss nouara

Yeah, I mean, me and him went through something that not a lot of other people went through. So yeah, it was something I’ll never forget.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

sabrina tavernise

How long were you in the shelter?

ydriss nouara

I was there for two days, almost three.

sabrina tavernise

Oh, wow.

ydriss nouara

Yeah.

sabrina tavernise

And where are you now, Ydriss?

ydriss nouara

We are at a hotel. We are just waiting. We don’t know what’s going on. So no one knows what they’re going to do. I mean, I’m telling you, I don’t even have shoes. And I don’t want to complain, because I’m alive and I feel like I shouldn’t be. But I don’t know what to feel right now. I feel lost. And I lost literally everything, everything I had. I can never get it back.

And I was down to the last cabinets, and I had just the curtains to put up in my room and then I was done with my new place. Everything was brand new. I worked so hard to have what I have. And then to find out, I was one week away from being insured. And I lost everything. I was literally — I needed one more curtain for my bedroom, and then that’s it. I was home.

Yeah, I worked so hard. And then I feel guilty because I’m complaining about my possessions when people lost their loved ones.

sabrina tavernise

Yeah.

ydriss nouara

And I can’t imagine what people went through with kids in their arms and Grandma and had to — I don’t know if I would have made it. The panic to have to care for somebody else like that.

They found a couple hugging in their car, burned down. I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine what they went through, people with kids. And my friend’s grandmother, her retirement home burned down and they can’t find her. So —

sabrina tavernise

Oh, no.

ydriss nouara

— I know friends of mine, their parents and relatives probably died, and died for sure. And so what the hell happened? Why? What happened? How? It’s not like —

Hawaii is known to have hurricanes. Like, why weren’t we ready? Like, how is this possible? With all this money from tourism coming in, I don’t understand how this could have happened. There was nothing, no warnings, no alarms, no nothing at all.

sabrina tavernise

When you think about it now, how do you make sense of it?

ydriss nouara

I don’t make sense of it. It’s just still a miracle that I’m alive, and it’s still — I mean, it felt like Pompeii. That’s what it felt like, just raining fire and everybody burning. And the sirens and then the wind, the explosions. No one knew where to go.

But what’s going to stick with me the most is definitely the screams and that dog when he looked at me in the water and the guy in the parking lot who was screaming, but I just didn’t know what he was saying.

sabrina tavernise

Do you see those things when you close your eyes?

ydriss nouara

I see them when my eyes are open.

But I’m lucky. I’m lucky. I’m one of the lucky ones. I have to start from scratch. I am lost, but thank god I’m alive.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

So Mike, my colleagues and I at “The Daily” have been talking to survivors of the Hawaii fire. And we just heard one of those stories from a man named Ydriss, a survivor. And at the end of our conversation, he had some questions that I think a lot of us have about how so many people could have died. What went wrong?

So you’ve been in Maui, reporting. And we wanted to ask you some of these questions. First, I want to start with setting the table with a few things we do know, which is, we know that the fire started around 6:30 in the morning, most likely from a downed power line that sparked on dry grass.

And we also know that firefighters responded to that. And around mid-morning, they declared it contained. But obviously, it wasn’t. So why don’t you pick up from there, Mike? How did this essentially low-grade brush fire turn into this monster?

mike baker

Yeah. I mean, that day, you had a real confluence of factors that set up the disaster. You had some really strong winds coming down the mountainside that a lot of people have attributed to a hurricane passing a few hundred miles to the south. You had a drought that had been in the region for quite some time. You had these really dry invasive grasses, some non-native species that have been there since the island’s plantation days or the aftermath of the plantation days.

And I think you really had this other factor of firefighters being stretched thin. This was a bad fire day across the island. They were strained across a few different places and didn’t have their full capacity in Lahaina when things started getting out of control.

And so early morning, there was this fire up on the hillside, more than a mile above the commercial district, the Front Street area of Lahaina. They declare it contained and eventually start going off to do other things.

But one of the neighbors I talked to said there was still just bits of smoke. Like, the ground was hot. Like, there was still just something smoldering there.

sabrina tavernise

Huh.

mike baker

And as the afternoon went on, the winds are roaring. And all of a sudden, the flames are back. And at that point, the winds are so strong that these little embers that are getting tossed into the air are soaring down the hillside. They’re racing down the hillside. The winds are so fast that the fire starts just to skip down. And pretty soon, it’s just headed towards some of the densest housing neighborhoods in town.

And the people we’ve talked to in that neighborhood said they essentially had no chance to prepare for evacuation, no warning that they should be getting out. The fire was on top of them so fast.

sabrina tavernise

Yeah. To that point, we heard from Ydriss and other people we talked to that there was no alarm, no warning. Like, people didn’t even know to get out until the fire was basically on their doorstep.

mike baker

Yeah. It’s interesting because the community has these warning sirens throughout town. And every month, residents there get to hear them. They have this whirring horn sound, and it’s called an all-hazard system. But the county is saying that It’s really a system not designed for fire. It’s designed for things like a tsunami. They felt like it was really not something that they had planned and considered to use in the event of a fire.

I think a lot of people, a lot of the residents feel like this would have been the ideal circumstance to use it. Cell service is going down. Electricity was getting knocked out when there’s so many people sitting in their homes, and they have no idea what’s coming. Something that could jar them to awareness that they may soon be incinerated, I think, would have been, to a lot of people, a big help.

sabrina tavernise

OK. So once people realize the fire is a big problem and it’s starting to roar into the town of Lahaina and they need to get out, what happens then? What do they do? A lot of people we talked to mentioned traffic jams, everybody on the same road gunning their engines, trying to get out, and getting stuck.

mike baker

Yeah. I think it’s important to know there’s really only two roads in and out of town, and one of them, the fire was going across. It was closed off due to the fire. The other, we know there were, at different points, power lines that had fallen across the road. And critically, once they were on the roads, people had no way to pass them. They were waiting for crews to come clear the roads.

You can see the traffic jams in some of the videos starting to build as people wait for a way to get south, a way to get north, a way to get anywhere out of town. And to make matters worse, the fire crews are racing around and initially trying to slow the spread of the fire.

But soon, we were talking to some of them, that they were tapping into hydrants and the stream was getting weaker. The spray would come out, and the wind was so strong, it would just turn to mist.

sabrina tavernise

Whoa. God.

mike baker

And then by the time they got further down the hill, the hydrants are basically empty. The county now says that the fire had burned so much so fast that there were homes all over town leaking water, and it left the firefighters with nothing to fight this fire. They were left watching the town burn with no way to stop it and instead were forced into basically try and get people out of town, try and direct them.

And even then, they were down on Front Street, stuck there. And that’s where things really just turned into a death trap.

sabrina tavernise

So, Mike, hearing you talk about all of this and really lay out these problems, clearly, this was an extraordinarily unlucky series of events. Fire from a downed power line driven by hurricane-force winds roars into this town.

And because of other power lines that are down, the roads are closed. But also, it sounds, maybe, like some of this could have been avoided. Like, to what degree was this bad luck versus human error?

mike baker

I think there’s certainly a sense that this confluence of factors would have been really hard to overcome, that this was going to be a serious and devastating situation, no matter how swift the response once the fire took hold.

At the same time, we have a situation with a lot of missed opportunities to have slowed the spread of the fire and save more people. There’s already lawsuits against the electric company, challenging them on whether they should have cut off power before the fire even started, questions about the crews on the power lines and whether they could have done more to clear roads at the time when people were trying to escape.

There’s an investigation from the state attorney general that’s exploring the overall wildfire and the response, the warning system, the preparations the county could have done, the resources available for the fire department. There’s going to be a lot of questions for, I think, several years.

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But I think in the bigger picture, there’s going to be a lot of questions about the future of West Maui in a place where so many people want to live. There’s so many residents that want to be here, tourists that want to come. It’s a special place with a deep history, the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

And these days, there’s a strain on the resources. There’s growing drought. There’s growing winds. And there’s a sense that the wildfire risk here is going to continue expanding as well, and it really raises some questions about the future of Lahaina at a time when right now, this community kind of has to start from scratch.

sabrina tavernise

And prevent something with this much collective anguish from ever happening again.

mike baker

Absolutely.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

sabrina tavernise

Mike, thank you.

mike baker

Sabrina, thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

sabrina tavernise

On Thursday, the chief of the Maui Emergency Management Agency resigned. The resignation of Herman Andaya, who cited health reasons for his departure, came one day after he defended not using outdoor sirens to warn about the fire.

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We’ll be right back.

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Here’s what else you should know today. On Thursday, the Sheriff’s Office in Fulton County, Georgia said that it was investigating threats made online against grand jurors who voted to indict former President Donald Trump for conspiring to overturn the results of the state’s 2020 election.

Georgia requires that the jurors be named in the indictment. And soon after it was released on Monday, the jurors’ identities began appearing on social media. Some jurors had their pictures, social media profiles, and possible addresses and phone numbers shared, in some cases with a suggestion that they should be harassed.

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Today’s episode was produced by Lynsea Garrison, Will Reed, and Sydney Harper. It was edited by Michael Benoist and Liz O. Baylen, contains original music by Marion Lozano and Dan Powell, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley.

Special thanks to Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Shawn Hubler, Serge Kovaleski, and Alain Delaquérière. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you on Monday.

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