Maui residents were blocked by barricades while trying to escape deadly wildfires

"If we’d just had like a 10- or 15-minute warning."

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY
The fires in Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui tore through the community with virtually no warning. Sirens that are meant to alert residents of tsunamis were not sounded as officials believed that sounding the warnings would cause more harm than not. Yet residents say that if they had just another 10-15 minutes lives would have been saved. 

"We needed like 10 more minutes, and we could have saved a lot of kids," said Nate Baird to the AP, who escaped from the fires with his wife and two children. "If we’d just had like a 10- or 15-minute warning." The children were the ones who alerted Baird about the fires, saying that the air smelled like s'mores.

Baird's neighborhood, he said, was full of kids who were home alone when the fires came through.

When Baird and his family tried to leave Lahaina to the south, they were confronted with barricades and a crew telling everyone to turn back due to downed electric polls. The crew was ushering people back into the fires. Baird and his family didn't do as they were told, instead driving around the barricades. 

“Nobody realized how little time we really had,” Baird said. “Like even us being from the heart of the fire, we did not comprehend. Like we literally had minutes and one wrong turn. We would all be dead right now.”

He spoke about running into a friend of their son at a mall, where they went to establish some sort of normalcy.

“The kids just don’t have a filter. So their son ran up and was just telling our son, you know, ‘This kid is dead. This kid is dead.’ And it’s like, all my son’s friends that they come to our house every day,” he said. “And their parents were at work, and they were home alone. And nobody had a warning. Nobody, nobody, nobody knew.”

Those who did run from the flames left in their cars on the only paved road out of Lahaina. There was a barricade blocking access to Highway 30, and many cars had to turn around and head back into the danger zone. Families that drove around the barricade survived. Those that did not likely perished.

The AP reports "dozens of others found themselves caught in a hellscape, their cars jammed together on a narrow road, surrounded by flames on three sides and the rocky ocean waves on the fourth. Some died in their cars, while others tried to run for safety." The roads were closed due to the fires and also downed power lines. 

The timeline is still unfolding, but gridlock caused by blocked roads contributed to the casualties. It wasn't until 5:20 p.m. on August 8 that Maui County posted on Facebook that the roads were cleared. One woman escaped with her two children by driving the wrong way to pass a traffic jam.

"The gridlock would have left us there when the firestorm came," Kim Cuevas-Reyes said. "I would have had to tell my children to jump into the ocean as well and be boiled alive by the flames or we would have just died from smoke inhalation and roasted in the car."

Many of those who are among the missing are believed to be children. Schools were closed on August 8, the day the fires ripped through, due to power outages, leaving children home alone or with elderly relatives. Video shows power lines bending in high gusts of wind, and fires beginning when those power lines touched dry brush, igniting it. The number of missing is over 1,000 and due to the intensity of the fires, it is likely that many of those will never be identified. The town of 13,000 is leveled.

Parents spoke about returning home to find charred remains of their children, such as one 14-year-old who was found clutching the family's dead dog. A 7-year-old was found burned to death along with his entire family in a smoldering car that was unable to get out.

Governor Josh Green said he wished the sirens had been sounded, though he reiterated that warning sirens had not previously been used for fires, and only for tsunamis. The concern was that people would hear the sirens and run up into the hills, into the flames. However, according to a new report from the AP, at least one man went into the hills above the flames and was safe. He was able to rescue people and pull survivors out of the rubble.

The names of those who are missing have not yet been released, but it's anticipated that they will be this week. There are more than 1,000 people unaccounted for.
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