Maui firefighters are still reliving the deadly wildfire inferno

FAN Editor

As the Maui grass that set the stage for the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century begins to grow back, firefighters in Hawaii are still reliving the most harrowing moments from the deadly inferno.

The wildfire, which engulfed Lahaina on Aug. 8, killed at least 99 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes and businesses. The cause of the fire is still being investigated by Hawaii’s Attorney General. 

Some first responders have said the events of that day are still haunting them, filling some with guilt about what else they could have done to save more lives.

Strong winds fed by a storm

The day started like many others, with clear blue skies – but winds were gusting to nearly 60 mph.

Firefighter Aina Kohler, who grew up in Lahaina, said she was used to wind in the once postcard-perfect town of 13,000 residents, but that day was different. Gusts whipped up by a hurricane roughly 500 miles offshore showed no mercy. 

“We’re used to wind, but we weren’t used to that kind of wind,” Kohler said. “I looked out my window and there was a giant kiddie pool, one of the bigger ones, flying through the air, 100 feet up.”

Utility poles snapped. More than 900 toppled that day, Hawaiian Electric said. Video from a resident recorded at 6:30 a.m. shows the moments after a power line fell and ignited the dry grass that covers much of Lahaina’s hillside. 

The grass reignited

At most, there are 17 firefighters on duty in West Maui. Kohler’s crew of four relieved the firefighters that initially responded to the blazing grass. She said they had the fire contained. 

“So now we were just putting water on all the hot spots to make sure that everything was fully out, just dousing everything in water,” Kohler said.

They were out there until around 2 p.m.

Then the grass reignited. 

Around 3 p.m., Kohler’s crew was called back to the area. Police videos show the hillside on fire again.

Mike Walker, who is in charge of fire protection for Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, had warned local lawmakers about the danger of overgrown grass in the area for five years. 

Dry grass in Hawaii
Dry grass in Hawaii 60 Minutes

The grass is not native to Hawaii –it’s an invasive species from Africa, brought to the island a century ago for cattle grazing because it grows fast, even with little water. 

It turned the area into a tinderbox. 

“A lot of the land right now is just unmanaged,” Walker said. “It’s either folks don’t have the finances, or it’s not economically worth it to work the land”

Just after 3 p.m., wind carried burning grass toward homes half a mile away.

The hydrants went dry

As the fire spread, Keahi Ho, a firefighter based in Lahaina on Ladder 3, was in charge of its biggest weapon: a cannon that shoots 2,000 gallons of water a minute. 

“I could stick it right in a window and put out that room, but the whole rest of the house is on fire,” Ho said. “And then every other house is on fire.”

Then something happened that the firefighters had never experienced, Ho said. The hydrants started to run dry. 

“It was a real low point for me, because I knew that we had lost, you know?” he said. “This was going to be worse than we could imagine.” 

Why a huge Hawaiian wildfire could happen again 06:00

The Maui County Department of Water Supply said the fire caused more than 2,000 pipe breaks, bleeding water out of the system.

As the flames continued to spread, firefighters didn’t have the water or the crews to stop it.

Blocked roads

By the time the orders to evacuate came, it was too late for many. Some residents and tourists did not realize they were in danger until the flames were yards away.

Flames, downed power lines and abandoned cars snarled evacuation attempts on the day of the wildfire. Traffic ground to a standstill in some areas.

Cars and a web of downed power lines trapped eight firefighters and their two engines that day. 

Cars burned during the Lahaina fire
Cars burned during the Lahaina fire 60 Minutes

They sheltered in the firetrucks and tried to conserve air, Tanner Mosher, a 26-year-old firefighter with Engine 6, said. They were focused on survival. 

“I mean, we could see metal melting in front of our eyes,” Mosher said.

Captain Jay Fujita, who was trapped in Engine 1, tried to text his wife. 

“I told her I love her and to pass the message on to the rest of my family, that I love them. That we’re stuck and we might not be able to make it out,” Fujita said. “But it was too hot in the truck, so my phone wasn’t working. So the message didn’t go through.”

A narrow escape

Mosher looked out the window of his truck and spotted Engine 1’s skeeter, a small fire truck. He jumped into it alone to see if he could clear a path for the engines to get out. When he realized the skeeter couldn’t go through the barricade of abandoned cars, he made the snap decision to drive over them to find help.

“I just remember putting it in four-wheel drive and I launched the barricade,” Mosher said. 

About a mile down the road, he saw the lights of a police SUV.

“I just remember leaving most of my stuff in that truck, getting out, running to the cop, and just telling him like, ‘Hey, I got guys in there. They need help. They’re dying,'” Mosher said. 

The officer let Mosher take his squad vehicle. As Mosher made his way back to the trapped firefighters, Fujita realized the firetruck was no longer offering protection. 

Tanner Mosher
Tanner Mosher 60 Minutes

“I noticed our windshield failing,” Fujita said.

The firefighters got out of the truck and sheltered behind it. Moments later, Mosher showed up in a police SUV. 

Seven firefighters in gear crammed inside. One of the firefighters, Captain Mike Mullalley, was unconscious from smoke inhalation.

“He was in the car, the SUV, with the door open, and his boots were hanging, but they weren’t touching the ground,” Mosher said. 

With his captain’s legs dangling out, Mosher said he drove the firefighters over obstacles.

Once in the clear, the firefighters performed CPR and stabilized Mullalley. Then they headed back to work.

Rescue efforts in Lahaina 

With little water, there wasn’t much the firefighters could do to save homes. so as the sun set the firefighter’s mission shifted to saving anyone they could, anyway they could. 

As a local, Aina Kohler, knew every way in and out of the area. She ditched her fire engine and used a pickup truck to snake through the burning debris.

“There were some people in their cars stuck down there, not knowing which way to get out,” she said. 

Kohler, a mother of two, jumped in people’s cars to drive them out to safety. Based on a “60 Minutes” count, Maui County Fire Department rescued at least 200 people from the fire. 

“I think we all feel –wish– we could’ve done more,” Mosher said. “We made it out, and we’re grateful. But at the same time there’s still people that didn’t make it out.”

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