‘A gunfight without bullets’: Hawaii firefighters faced down blaze with dry hydrants

Firefighters on the front line in Lahaina are telling harrowing stories of watching their own town burn — while the water ran out and they were forced to flee.
Published: Aug. 15, 2023 at 4:09 PM CDT

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow/Gray News) - Firefighters on the front line in Lahaina, Hawaii, are telling harrowing stories of watching their town burn while their water ran out and they were forced to flee.

The stories are coming out through their union leaders, who are trying to make sure they have the continuing support they need.

Hawaii Fire Fighters Association president Bobby Lee said he and two executives of the international union toured Lahaina and met with Maui firefighters Sunday.

“Our resources were pretty much overwhelmed,” Lee said.

Officials said the firefighters described the wind-driven fires bearing down on Lahaina as being like a blowtorch, with 25 to 30 firefighters staring down the flames as their hydrants went dry.

It’s unclear what made the hydrants run dry. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Monday that will be part of the state attorney general’s investigation.

Frank Lima, the secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Fire Fighters, described a nightmare scenario for the firefighters on the ground.

“Fighting fire for their lives, getting overrun, trying to have a captain they are trying to get out to a burn center, hydrants aren’t working, that’s no different from cops being in a gunfight without bullets,” Lima described.

Stephen Gilman, International Association of Fire Fighters regional vice president, said they were making life-and-death decisions during the crisis.

“With communications breaking down, they (made) split second decisions,” Gilman said.

According to Lee, at one point, one of the half-dozen companies was forced to abandon their truck.

“They couldn’t ram cars in front of them because people are in them,” Lee said. “Get out, try and get people out and stay away from the fire because the truck could go nowhere because the cars were all around.”

On top of water supply issues, the emergency communications failed as well.

“At some point, even the 911 system was not operable,” Lee said. “I don’t know if fire consumed antennas or what.”

The leaders also pointed out that many of the firefighters were defending their own homes.

“While they are fighting fire and fighting for their own lives and fighting to protect people they don’t know putting their lives on the line, in the back of their head they know their house has been destroyed and they are wondering about their loved ones,” Lima said.

Donations are being collected for Hawaii firefighters.