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How California is responding to Maui’s deadly wildfire

Destroyed homes and cars are shown, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Rick Bowmer
AP Photo
Destroyed homes and cars are shown, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

The wildfire in Maui has killed more than 90 people, with more missing, making it one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history and the deadliest within the past century.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green announced on Sunday that only a fraction of the devastated area has been searched and that the fire spread so rapidly — at a rate of a mile a minute — it was practically impossible for people to get out of harm’s way.

Jonathan Masaki Shiroma is a Maui native and works at Hawaii News Now. But he has California ties, having spent years in Sacramento as a reporter.

“Sadly, my cousin lost his in-laws and his sister-in-law, and her son, that was discovered just late last week. And we do have one second cousin that is still missing and not accounted for. So, yes, there is a lot of concern in my family this morning,” Shiroma told CapRadio’s Insight.

His family has deep roots in the historic town of Lahaina, which was largely destroyed.

“The loss that we feel is humungous,” Shiroma said. “The very place where we as children just played in the backyard under the mango tree and running around the sugar mill. It has a different emotion to it because that's all gone. And it's so difficult to sometimes come to terms with just the reality of it all.”

In response, California Governor Gavin Newsom deployed California Urban Search & Rescue Task Forces to aid in the recovery and search for those missing.

CapRadio’s Mike Hagerty spoke with Brian Ferguson, deputy director with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, to learn more about the state’s response.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Interview highlights

What is the immediate need in Maui right now?

We've been in a conversation with them since the very beginning. Governor Newsom talked to Governor Green in Hawaii the night of. This is something that, unfortunately, we've gotten very good at in California in recent years. And so, to be able to extend that support is something we absolutely want to do to our neighbors in Hawaii.

We actually have fire and rescue personnel on the ground, experts in mass casualty incidents, highly specialized search and rescue folks who are working really closely with the officials in Hawaii to help walk them through processing a scene, identifying the bodies, and hopefully bringing some closure to the families so they can have a better idea of what happened to their loved ones, and help the community move on as quickly as possible.

The coordination that goes on between federal, local and state agencies

So all disasters are local. But of an incident of this size and scale, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have a very significant footprint in helping them — particularly for a state like Hawaii, which is smaller in population than some cities here in California. There are probably as many first responders in Sacramento County as there are in the entire state of Hawaii.

And so just the scope of what they're dealing with is very different than what we're used to. We're able to quickly move resources, where a place like Hawaii is smaller. Just because of the nature of it, it is more isolated. You can't have firetrucks drive from one county to another to assist a fire like this. It's a more complex undertaking because you need planes or barges to move a lot of this equipment.

The type of work California’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces do

These are folks that get deployed all over the world. You often see them in building collapses or hurricanes. They're going through with tools, with cadaver dogs, with really highly trained scientists, and actually working through a scene to understand “here’s where people might have shelter, maybe we can find people over here.”

These are people who live for these moments. And while it’s a tragedy, we are at our best when some other people are at their worst. And we want to bring that support to them. And it's really the most direct form of public service you can provide — people who run towards the fire, who hop on a plane in a time of a crisis.

How long crews will be there

They'll stay for as long as they need to. They'll be part of the incident management team that's run by the local Hawaii officials. Sometimes you get there and you find complexities that you may not know about. So I think the short answer is they'll stay for as long as they're needed and we’ll continue to work through additional personnel to fill that need.

Mental health support offered to urban search and rescue crews

This is one of the biggest growth areas we've seen in disaster management, in crises, in the last couple of years. Because as these disasters become more frequent and more severe, the type of work is longer in duration and more challenging. There's been really significant investments in mental health counseling. Peer support is something that we're very big on. This could be six or eight months before these incidents really settle down. And so it's here for them, not just now, but for the long term.

Learning lessons from the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history

We're nearly five years on from the Camp Fire. We're all too familiar with the challenges, and anything we've learned from what we do here in California can bring support to them. To help them rebuild a community. It won't be the same. We want to emphasize that we can move things quickly, but the community is not going to be the same as it was before. But perhaps, what positives can we build out of this to help people get back on their feet or rebuild their lives.

Mike is a native Californian, born in Los Angeles. But in the years just before Mike’s birth, his parents lived in Sacramento, made many friends here, and Mike spent a week of every summer as a child in Sacramento when the family would come to visit. He grew up on ice cream from Vic’s and Gunther’s and movies at the Crest and Tower.
Vicki Gonzalez is a Murrow and Emmy award-winning journalist with nearly 15 years of experience as a reporter, news anchor and producer.
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