Renton firefighters assist with search and rescue in Maui

Three days after wildfires swept the island of Maui in Hawaii, Washington State Task Force 1 arrived outside of the town of Lahaina on Aug. 11 in the darkness of night.

They arrived and slept at a shut-down hotel five minutes from Lahaina with no electricity.

Without any power, no one saw the extent of destruction until morning.

Washington State Task Force 1, one of 28 Federal Emergency Management Agency teams in the nation, started work on Aug. 12.

The 85 personnel, alongside Nevada Task Force 1, aimed to support local resources including the Maui Fire Department and Maui Police Department with search, rescue and recovery efforts in Lahaina’s 2,000 burned acres.

Three members of the Renton Regional Fire Authority deployed to Lahaina for the 14-day mission: Battalion Chief Ryan Simonds, Battalion Chief Jim Ochs, and firefighter and engineer Jeremy Tucker.

They deployed with five canines, three specialized in tracking human remains.

“I’ve been a firefighter for 19, almost 20 years. … We had heard about it. We had seen the stories of it,” Simonds said. “It was apocalyptic. It was complete devastation. That was shared among everybody there.”

Simonds and the team received assignments to conduct extensive searches of structures in a division of the city encompassing residential homes and commercial buildings.

Simonds remembers pulling out his phone to try to situate himself and the crew, and realizing above him stood a restaurant he used to frequent on vacation.

“Places that I’d been to a lot were completely unrecognizable,” Simonds said. “You couldn’t even know that that was a shop or that [it] was a restaurant that you’d been into.”

Days started for rescuers at around 4:30 a.m. “trying to grab a quick breakfast,” Simonds said. At 5:30 a.m., crews loaded up the vehicles to leave the site, with managers heading to operational briefings and personnel heading to a base of operations in the center of town for a briefing on the operation plans for the day.

At around 7 a.m., crews started work.

Crews breathed through respirators to protect against inhalants, dust, smoke and gas, and worked in 90-degree temperatures. Canines wore special boots to protect paws from the searing pavement.

Teams worked with locals searching structures and negotiating and taking down buildings left unstable following the fire.

They found no survivors in the rubble in the secondary searches, Simonds said.

“If anybody had survived through that, they were found by Maui Fire, Maui police, and [locals],” Simonds said. “Our first day of operations wasn’t until Aug. 12 — a few days after the fires had gone through.”

At 4:30 to 5 p.m., crews headed back to the operating base to undergo extensive decontamination and to the hotel to shower.

At around 6:30 p.m., crews ate dinner, with managers having meetings after.

“People are in bed real quick,” Simonds said. “Depending on what your role was … you might be in your bed by 11 or 12, and you get maybe three or four hours of sleep, and then you’re up and doing it again.”

In the first days of arriving, the team faced the logistical challenges of setting up communications (the fire downed cellular towers), a lack of electricity, and feeding crews, Simonds said.

After a week, as additional FEMA teams arrived, including from Maryland, Indiana, and California to assist in search and recovery efforts, crews received more resources.

“We know that usually the first 72 hours we’re kind of figuring it out, and here we had no power and all communications were pretty much shut down,” Simonds said.

Simonds said FEMA provided a psychologist on the ground early into the mission, with the International Association of Firefighters providing peer support members to meet with FEMA teams crews in the 14 days in Maui.

Simonds said members of the crew continue to check up on one another after the deployment.

“That will go on for some time as now we’re back home and we’re back in our daily routines and our normal lives,” Simonds said.

“This is what we’re trained to do” Simonds said. “We’re there … to do a mission and to make sure we do the best job and to respect the culture of the Hawaiian people and to make sure that we’re serving them just like we serve … [our communities] when we’re at home.”