During the frantic moments on Tuesday after a wildfire jumped containment near a residential neighborhood in Lahaina, Hawaii, firefighters rushing to slow the spread were distressed to find that their hydrants were starting to run dry.
Hoping to control the blaze as it took root among homes along the hillside nearly a mile above the center of town, fire crews encountered water pressure that was increasingly feeble, with the wind turning the streams into mist. Then, as the inferno stoked by hurricane-force gusts grew, roaring further toward the historic center of town on the island of Maui, the hydrants sputtered and became largely useless.
“There was just no water in the hydrants,” said Keahi Ho, one of the firefighters who was on duty in Lahaina.
“What do we learn from this?” he said.
The water system in Lahaina relies on both surface water from a creek and groundwater pumped from wells. Persistent drought conditions combined with population growth have already led officials at the state and local level to explore ways to shore up water supplies, and they broke ground on a new well two months ago to increase capacity.
On the day the fire tore through Lahaina, the fight was complicated by winds in excess of 70 miles per hour, stoked by a hurricane offshore. Not only did the wind fuel the blaze, it made it impossible during much of the day to launch helicopters that could have carried in and dropped water from the ocean.
John Stufflebean, the county’s director of water supply, said backup generators allowed the system to maintain sufficient overall supply throughout the fire. But he said that as the fire began moving down the hillside, turning homes into rubble, many properties were damaged so badly that water was spewing out of their melting pipes, depressurizing the network that also supplies the hydrants.
“The water was leaking out of the system,” he said.
With an estimated 60 to 70 firefighters on duty at any one time on Maui, according to the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, the firefighting crews were stretched thin as they battled three different conflagrations on the island.
The fire in Lahaina took hold early at a residence in Lahaina, Mr. Ho said, and his crew began to set up to fight the flames while evacuating several people from inside and getting them into the truck. But the fire was spreading further, and they moved down to another nearby house, where they set up again and rescued an elderly woman, also giving her refuge in the truck. Every time they set up to suppress the fire in one area, the blaze would spread and they would find themselves scrambling to stay ahead of it. The water pressure was a continuing problem, he said.
At one point, the crew found a hydrant further north that seemed to have more water, and they doused a commercial building. But the water soon ran dry again. They left the scene, he said, hoping that the water they had applied to the structure would be enough to keep it safe.
“I thought it had a chance,” Mr. Ho said. “But I guess it didn’t because that whole building was burned down.”
In the end, the fire stopped only when it ran out of fuel at the ocean. The extent of the damage is still coming into focus, but it is already huge: some 1,500 residential buildings destroyed, thousands of people displaced, nearly 100 found dead so far, and the heart of a community that has long been a gem of Hawaiian history is reduced to ashes.
The state attorney general has begun a review of how previous decision-making and policies might have affected the fire and the county’s ability to fight it. The problems with water availability were compounded by others, as many residents said they were never given evacuation orders, and sirens set up to warn of such emergencies never sounded an alarm.
Some communities, he said, have put into place designs that limit the possibility of these competing demands, such as systems with multiple main lines. But he said those alterations can be costly.
Most medium and large-size water agencies have generators that can keep water moving even when the power goes out, said Gary Sturdivan, an expert in emergency preparedness in the water supply industry. But if the fire reaches and engulfs the generators themselves, they will quickly become worthless, he said.
West Maui’s water system relies on electrical power to pump water through the network and deliver it to fire hydrants, and officials at Hawaiian Electric, the state’s main electrical utility, have said that the need to maintain this pumping capability has made it difficult to shut off power when high winds pose a fire risk.
“Pre-emptive, short-notice power shut-offs have to be coordinated with first-responders and in Lahaina, electricity powers the pumps that provide the water needed for firefighting,” said Jim Kelly, a spokesman for the utility.
Stufflebean said that crews in recent days have been going through the Lahaina rubble to shut off water valves, and that has helped re-pressurize the system. But Lahaina was not the only place where the breakdown occurred.
Across the island in Kula, which has a water system separate from Lahaina’s, 16 structures were destroyed. Ross Hart, one of the homeowners whose property was leveled, said he and others fought their fire for hours, sometimes alone with hoses, other times with the aid of firefighters. But he said that as the night wore on, there was no water in the hoses.
“Then the fire just grew,” he said. “The sparks started blowing over, and we couldn’t keep up with our buckets to put out the little spot fires. It just beat us in the end. We had to get out.”
“You can’t fight fire when you don’t have water,” he said. “Just throwing dirt on it doesn’t cut it.”