A crew of Maui firefighters took a lunch break on 8 August, thinking they had successfully tamped down a blaze threatening the town of Lahaina, only for the fire to later grow and race toward the historic town.
The moment was a key early interlude in a blaze that killed an estimated 97 people, one of the worst fire disasters in US history.
Aina Kohler, one of the firefighters battling the initial conflagration outside of Lahaina, told The Wall Street Journal she and a team of fellow first responders had been battling the fire for seven hours, flooding grasslands with 23,000 gallons of water and building a containment line that appeared to have done its job.
“It didn’t spread for the few hours we were there,” she said. “It didn’t rekindle.”
“There was so much chaos going on that day that to expect a fire department to sit on what appeared to be a completely controlled situation is kind of ridiculous,” said added. “We’re here to take care of the whole community.”
The crew left at 2.18pm to eat, drink water, and refresh their equipment, only for the fire to grow once again around 3pm.
Fire crews arrived within five minutes of the newly reported blaze, which spread quickly, burning nearby houses and headed downhill towards Lahaina. Ms Kohler’s own house was among those that were damaged.
Outside observers said the firefighters were acting according to normal protocol and shouldn’t be blamed.
“It’s not unreasonable that they would disengage from that fire that they thought was fully contained and controlled,” Timothy Ingalsbee of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, told the paper. “When you’ve got running flames elsewhere on the island and you’ve got a crew that’s been working hard and needs to get a bit of rest before facing more obvious fire risks, it’s understandable.”
Breaking down what exactly caused the deadly fire is at the centre of litigation filed last month against Hawaiian Electric Company, a utility that Maui County blames for starting the blaze.
The power provider has said high winds downed power lines and appeared to cause a fire on 8 August, but that lines in West Maui had been de-energised for hours before a second, separate fire started near Lahaina.