Debate on siren's role in deadly Hawaii wildfires forces official to resign

Debate on siren's role in deadly Hawaii wildfires forces official to resign

IANS Photo

Honolulu, August 18 (IANS) As the death toll from the Hawaii wildfires is still on the rise, the debate has got heated around whether sirens could have made a difference against the deadliest fires in modern US history.

The fires that started on August 8 in Maui Island killed 111 people as of Thursday, with the death toll expected to rise as searches continue, reports Xinhua news agency.

When the wildfires broke out, residents said they were not evacuated and none of the island's 80 warning sirens sounded for evacuation.

The Maui County Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for sounding the sirens, faced intense criticism because it didn't activate the system before the disaster.

The agency's head, Herman Andaya, resigned on Thursday facing increasing criticism for the agency's response to the crisis. But he cited health reasons for his resignation, according to the official Facebook page of Maui County.

Andaya defended the agency's decision at Wednesday's media briefing, saying the system was used primarily to warn the public of tsunamis.

He said people were trained to evacuate to higher ground, and he was afraid at that time that people would have gone mountainside into the path of fires if the sirens were sounded that night.

The siren system has not been used either in Maui or in other jurisdictions around the state for wildfires, Andaya said.

Hawaii Governor Josh Green backed Andaya's reasoning, saying at the briefing that "in those cases (of wildfires) had a siren gone off, I would have been expecting a tsunami to come".

The county's siren system is used to warn the public about natural disasters and other emergencies.

The system includes outdoor sirens, warnings that are broadcast on TV and radio, as well as wireless alerts texted to cellphones.

The agency did activate the warning systems for cellphones, TV and radio stations.

But widespread power and signal outages limited the reach, because electrical power and cell service were down when high winds hit the island.

The sirens, however, are solar-powered and can sound even during power outage.

But some experts said it's unclear if sirens could have made a difference in the Maui fires.

Sarah DeYoung, a professor at the University of Delaware, told National Public Radio that sirens had limitations because they couldn't tell people exactly what to do.

Despite the limitations, she said, "It's better to give people more information than not enough."

The Maui County's emergency response is under review by the Hawaii Attorney General's office.