During the frantic moments Tuesday after a wildfire jumped containment near a residential neighborhood in Lahaina, Hawaii, firefighters rushing to slow the spread were distressed to find that their hydrants were starting to run dry.
Hoping to control the blaze as it took root among homes along the hillside nearly a mile above the center of town, fire crews encountered water pressure that was increasingly feeble, with the wind turning the streams into mist. Then, as the inferno stoked by hurricane-force gusts grew, roaring further toward the historic center of town on the island of Maui, the hydrants sputtered and became largely useless.
“There was just no water in the hydrants,” said Keahi Ho, one of the firefighters who was on duty in Lahaina.
The collapse of the town’s water system, described to The New York Times by several people on scene, is yet another disastrous factor in a confluence that ended up producing what is now the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than 100 years. The lack of water forced firefighters into an extraordinary rush to save lives by risking their own, and it has left people searching for answers about how the community can better prepare for a world of fiercer winds and drier lands.
Edwin Lindsey III, who goes by Ekolu, a Lahaina resident who lost his home and also sits on the county’s Board of Water Supply, said he spoke with a firefighter who said it had been demoralizing for crews to watch the advance of the fire with little ability to slow it. He said he hoped that the water issues, one of a number of challenges the community faced — including a struggle to evacuate all residents — would be part of a larger discussion about lessons from the fire.
“What do we learn from this?” he said.
The water system in Lahaina relies on both surface water from a creek and groundwater pumped from wells. Persistent drought conditions combined with population growth have already led officials at the state and local level to explore ways to shore up water supplies, and they broke ground on a new well two months ago to increase capacity.
On the day the fire tore through Lahaina, the fight was complicated by winds in excess of 70 mph, stoked by a hurricane offshore. Not only did the wind fuel the blaze, it made it impossible during much of the day to launch helicopters that could have carried in and dropped water from the ocean.
Early that day, as winds knocked out power to thousands of people, county officials urged people to conserve water, saying that “power outages are impacting the ability to pump water.”
John Stufflebean, the county’s director of water supply, said backup generators allowed the system to maintain sufficient overall supply throughout the fire. But he said that as the fire began moving down the hillside, turning homes into rubble, many properties were damaged so badly that water was spewing out of their melting pipes, depressurizing the network that also supplies the hydrants.
“The water was leaking out of the system,” he said.
One firefighter described how his truck tapped into a hydrant to try and contain a blaze that had taken root in a cluster of homes, only to find water pressure so weak that the fire promptly jumped beyond their efforts to contain it. Another firefighter who arrived on scene after the fire was already raging said he encountered a scene of chaos and soon was told that there was no water to put the fires out. Crews were forced to focus on evacuations, he said, picking up people who were stranded and pointing others toward the fastest routes to safety.
These two firefighters declined to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the emergency effort.
With an estimated 60 to 70 firefighters on duty at any one time on Maui, according to the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, the firefighting crews were stretched thin as they battled three different conflagrations on the island.
The fire in Lahaina took hold early at a residence, Ho said, and his crew began to set up to fight the flames while evacuating several people from inside and getting them into the truck. But the fire was spreading further, and they moved down to another nearby house, where they set up again and rescued an elderly woman, also giving her refuge in the truck. Every time they set up to suppress the fire in one area, the blaze would spread and they would find themselves scrambling to stay ahead of it. The water pressure was a continuing problem, he said.
At one point, the crew found a hydrant further north that seemed to have more water, and they doused a commercial building. But the water soon ran dry again. They left the scene, he said, hoping that the water they had applied to the structure would be enough to keep it safe.
“I thought it had a chance,” Ho said. “But I guess it didn’t because that whole building was burned down.”
Ho said downed power lines made navigation treacherous. The wind was so intense that firefighters found themselves crawling at times. Thick smoke made it difficult to breathe, but they often had to remove their masks to communicate evacuation orders to people still in the area.
In the end, the fire stopped only when it ran out of fuel at the ocean. The extent of the damage is still coming into focus, but it is already huge: some 1,500 residential buildings destroyed, thousands of people displaced, nearly 100 found dead so far, and the heart of a community that has long been a gem of Hawaiian history is reduced to ashes.
The state attorney general has begun a review of how previous decision-making and policies might have affected the fire and the county’s ability to fight it. The problems with water availability were compounded by others, as many residents said they were never given evacuation orders, and sirens set up to warn of such emergencies never sounded an alarm.
Charles Jennings, an associate professor who specializes in fire and emergency management issues at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he was not aware of other cases in which burned pipes were losing so much water that it affected the overall water supply. He said it is common in big fires for firefighters to find themselves tapping the same mainline, somewhat weakening their individual flows.
Some communities, he said, have put into place designs that limit the possibility of these competing demands, such as systems with multiple mainlines. But he said those alterations can be costly.
Most medium and large-size water agencies have generators that can keep water moving even when the power goes out, said Gary Sturdivan, an expert in emergency preparedness in the water supply industry. But if the fire reaches and engulfs the generators themselves, they will quickly become worthless, he said.
West Maui’s water system relies on electrical power to pump water through the network and deliver it to fire hydrants, and officials at Hawaiian Electric, the state’s main electrical utility, have said that the need to maintain this pumping capability has made it difficult to shut off power when high winds pose a fire risk.
“Preemptive, short-notice power shut-offs have to be coordinated with first responders, and in Lahaina, electricity powers the pumps that provide the water needed for firefighting,” said Jim Kelly, a spokesperson for the utility.
Stufflebean said crews in recent days have been going through the Lahaina rubble to shut off water valves, and that has helped re-pressurize the system. But Lahaina was not the only place where the breakdown occurred.
Across the island in Kula, which has a water system separate from Lahaina’s, 16 structures were destroyed. Ross Hart, one of the homeowners whose property was leveled, said he and others fought their fire for hours, sometimes alone with hoses, other times with the aid of firefighters. But he said that as the night wore on, there was no water in the hoses.
“Then the fire just grew,” he said. “The sparks started blowing over, and we couldn’t keep up with our buckets to put out the little spot fires. It just beat us in the end. We had to get out.”
“You can’t fight fire when you don’t have water,” he said. “Just throwing dirt on it doesn’t cut it.”