Maui Commercial Property Cleanup Begins

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2023


Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started work to remove hazardous materials in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, on commercial properties. The efforts follow the deadly wildfire that burned more than 3.4 square miles on the island.

“The work is not done, but the completion of EPA’s Phase I work is in sight. We will continue steady and strong until our mission is complete,” said EPA Incident Commander Tara Fitzgerald

“We have started work on the most technically difficult properties, which signal a near transition to the Army Corps work of removing all remaining debris on properties.”

What Happened

On Aug. 8, a massive blaze destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina, on Maui, resulting in catastrophic damage and loss of life. The Lahaina wildfire was one of four blazes that broke out on Maui, scorching a combined 5.7 square miles. Three of the four fires were still burning as of Aug. 17.

Officials stated that two of the fires had originally been referred to as a single blaze, the Upcountry/Kula fire. However, Maui County officials said on Aug. 17 that they were determined to be two fires with "distinct origins," and they would be reported separately as the Olinda and Kula fires.

Those two fires broke out on the eastern side of the island and reportedly destroyed 19 homes. The land surrounding the fires in the Upcountry region also reportedly made extinguishing the flames difficult, and firefighters battling those two blazes were still dealing with "hot spots in gulches, forests and other hard-to-reach places," officials said.

According to a report from CBS News, the fires killed over 100 people and forced thousands to evacuate. Reports state that they were fueled by a mix of land and atmospheric conditions that can create "fire weather."

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green stated after the fires broke out that there was "very little left" of Lahaina, where more than 2,700 structures had been destroyed in what is now being called the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Green said he expected the death toll to keep climbing.

“There are more fatalities that will come," Green said to CBS News. "The fire was so hot that what we find is the tragic finding that you would imagine, as though a fire has come through and it's hard to recognize anybody."

Lahaina’s mayor stated that almost two weeks after the blazes first spread, over 800 people were still missing, and many of them could be children.

According to the report, which was updated on Aug. 21, an investigation is underway to determine what initially sparked the wildfires, though the cause has not been officially determined.

The National Weather Service stated in a tweet before the fires started the significant differences in atmospheric pressure between the hurricane and the air north of Hawaii formed a pressure gradient over the islands which, when combined with dry conditions, posed a serious threat of fires as well as damaging winds. 

Investigators are reportedly looking into whether downed power lines and decisions by Hawaiian Electric, the state's primary power company, played a role.

Claims had reportedly surfaced that Hawaiian Electric, which operates Maui Electric and services 95% of the state overall, did not implement precautionary safety measures included in an emergency plan to reduce wildfire risks ahead of the storm. Citing documents, a report from The Washington Post noted that the provider did not shut off electricity to areas where strong winds were expected and could spark flames. 

Investigators are still reportedly looking into whether downed power lines and decisions by Hawaiian Electric played a role.

The report also states that much of Hawaii was under a red flag warning for fire risk when the wildfires broke out, with dangerous high wind conditions caused by Hurricane Dora, which was moving across the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of the Hawaiian Islands.

“We don't know what actually ignited the fires, but we were made aware in advance by the National Weather Service that we were in a red flag situation—so that's dry conditions for a long time, so the fuel, the trees and everything, was dry,” said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, commander general of the Hawaii Army National Guard.

That, along with low humidity and high winds, “set the conditions for the wildfires,” he added.

Several agencies were reportedly called to respond to wildfires on Maui as the blazes spread rapidly over the island, though weather conditions linked to Hurricane Dora hindered some of those efforts.

Additionally, a state emergency proclamation was given to authorize the deployment of National Guard troops and extend the state of emergency. President Biden approved the federal disaster declaration on Aug. 10.

The report states that the Olinda Fire has scorched 1.69 square miles and was 85% contained as of Aug. 17, while the Kula Fire burned about one-third of a square mile and was 80% contained.

The Lahaina fire, which burned 3.39 square miles, was 89% contained on Aug. 17, with officials reporting “no active threats at this time.” The county noted that even when a fire is 100% contained, that does not mean it has been extinguished but that firefighters had it “fully surrounded by a perimeter.”

What Now

Phase 1 of material removal, led by the EPA, included household materials and fuel from pressurized cylinders and tanks. However, Phase 2 will be carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and will include debris removal, with some empty containers of fuel marked for debris removal work by the EPA.

According to the EPA, work was prioritized on residential properties to allow local residents to return as soon as possible. Removal of hazardous materials can reportedly occur on commercial properties that have been identified as not having a risk for the field workers, including unstable structures, collapsed roofs or other physical hazards.

Commercial properties that cannot be addressed during this phase will then be addressed in the second phase. The larger size of the properties and the increased likelihood of finding more diverse hazardous materials makes this work more technically difficult, the agency explains.

Additionally, controlling the spread of ash and debris will be the teams’ focus, continuing to apply soil stabilizer to the ash footprint on all impacted properties in Lahaina (excluding areas of cultural significance) to protect human health and the environment. This stabilizer reportedly helps prevent toxic ash and debris from entering the air, nearby properties, waterways and the ocean.

EPA teams also continue to identify, transport, and safely dispose of lithium-ion batteries used in electric and hybrid vehicles, charging stations, and solar power systems. Fire-damaged lithium-ion batteries need to be recovered with specific care, de-energized and disposed of properly.

The agency adds that due to the number of layered debris and the difficulty of safely entering and operating within multistory apartments, teams did not begin these hazardous material assessments until this week. It is reportedly likely that most of the hazardous waste recovery work will be deferred to the second phase of debris removal.

The EPA says it has removed 90% of hazardous materials from burned residential and commercial properties. The updated completion percentage includes a change in the total number of parcels to be cleared by the EPA from 1,601 to 1,620.

   

Tagged categories: Cleanup; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); EPA; Fatalities; Fire; Good Technical Practice; hazardous materials; Hazardous waste; Hazards; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Projects - Commercial

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