Survivors of the Maui fire that swept through the town of Lahaina said the only paved road out was barricaded by authorities as flames overcame the town, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Maui was devastated earlier this month, with Lahaina taking the brunt of the deadliest wildfire in modern American history. So far, 115 people have been confirmed dead while between 800 – 1,000 remain missing.
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said during a news conference that residents were not prevented from fleeing Lahaina, but accounts from some of the survivors suggest they were hindered from making a quick escape because of the decision to close the Honoapiilani Highway at the south end of town.
Witnesses who survived the blaze said that traffic quickly backed up as residents attempted to flee to the south, but the road was blocked as a crew worked on downed power lines. One family ignored the barricade and swerved past the cones placed in the road, making it safely to another town nearly an hour later.
“Nobody realized how little time we really had,” said Nate Baird, who drove his wife and two young sons out of Lahaina. “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.”
A woman and her 3-year-old daughter escaped the burning town by driving her four-wheel-drive vehicle on a dirt road to a friend’s house in a neighboring town, the AP reported. A mother with her two young sons said she escaped the gridlock by ignoring traffic instructions and driving on the wrong side of the road to pass a long line of cars.
“The gridlock would have left us there when the firestorm came,” 38-year-old 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.”
The road leading out of Lahaina to the south did not open until 5:20 p.m., according to Maui County, nearly two hours after residents began fleeing the fire. Witnesses said that by the time the road was cleared, some had already died in the flames as others escaped the growing fire by jumping into the ocean.
Maui authorities face intense scrutiny for their response to the fires and the lack of details they have provided in the aftermath of the disaster.
Maui Emergency Management Agency Chief Herman Andaya chose not to use the island’s emergency sirens to alert residents to the deadly fire, saying the emergency sirens are usually used for tsunami warnings, which tell Hawaiians to seek higher ground, but that would’ve been toward the fire. Andaya then resigned one day after explaining his decision, citing “health reasons.”
Another government agency, the Hawaii Commission on Water Resource Management, was accused of delaying a request for more water to fight the fire because it first had to consult with local farmers. The agency was formerly led by a “water equity advocate,” who was reassigned to a different division following the fires.
Hawaiian Electric is also under scrutiny for allegedly slow-walking modernization and repairs of its electrical grid as it devoted resources to building out the utility’s green energy network. The state attorney general said it will use a third party to investigate how state and local government agencies responded to the devastating fires.