2024 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Pete Guria, Steve Calanog, Tara Fitzgerald and the 2023 Maui Wildfires Emergency Response Team

Directed more than 300 Environmental Protection Agency personnel to remove tons of hazardous materials from the Maui wildfires while respecting local cultural norms and setting standards for federal response teams that followed.

The deadly August 2023 wildfires in Maui that destroyed thousands of structures, claimed nearly a hundred lives and created toxic debris and ash, presented unique challenges for the Environmental Protection Agency team that arrived first on the scene to assess and remove hazardous materials.  

Members of the 2023 Maui Wildfires Emergency Response Team—Pete Guria, Steve Calanog, Tara Fitzgerald and many others—overcame those challenges, one by one. 

They figured out how to decommission for safe transport thousands of damaged and potentially explosive lithium-ion batteries from solar panels and electric cars. They worked with the community to identify important historical sites and artifacts in the rubble that needed to be treated according to local cultural norms.  

“This is the federal government coming to people in their hours of greatest need and doing it so beautifully,” said EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe.  

Team members also determined an effective method for tamping down toxic ash to keep it from blowing around the island and into the ocean, holding many meetings to answer questions and explain to concerned residents why the soil stabilizer they chose was safe and needed. All told, the team removed 200 tons of hazardous materials from more than 1,600 damaged properties while directing more than 300 people and working with federal, state, local and community leaders. 

On-scene, Calanog served as incident commander and Fitzgerald switched off between being incident commander and deputy incident commander. Guria, as regional incident coordinator, served as a liaison between the field operation, senior management and the headquarters of other federal agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Planning ahead and on the fly 

The fires were still burning when the EPA team began planning its response. Within two days, they were working with FEMA and Maui County to mobilize a 130-person incident management team composed of 50% island residents. Two days later, that larger team was integrated into the county’s emergency operations center.  

The EPA team conducted training for residents of Lahaina, which was hardest hit by the fires. “We trained them up to join us in the field to identify important cultural artifacts,” said Michael Montgomery, with EPA’s Superfund and Emergency Management Division.  

It was an intense environment, he added, and “I’m really proud that our team brought and infused our contractors and our staff that came from all over the nation to help out, with a real, thoughtful perspective on working in a community that suffered such amazing loss.”   

The full team quickly developed an approach to assess burned areas and monitor air quality so people could take precautions. They deployed drones to get critical data to develop interactive maps of damaged and destroyed property so clean-up teams could get to work.  

Speed was vital. Other federal teams could not go in to do their jobs, such as removing large pieces of debris from properties, until the job of clearing the area of hazardous materials was done.  

Removing and disposing of damaged lithium-ion batteries was a major issue. “This was a new one, with just the sheer volume,” Fitzgerald said.  

The team experimented and came up with a liquid mixture to decommission the otherwise highly dangerous batteries. The EPA is looking into patenting its discovery to help fire departments all over the country, which for years have been seeking ways to solve this problem.  

Hard work, and respect for the local culture 

The team relied on the advice of Maui cultural leaders, who provided sensitivity training to EPA responders and advised on local culture to prevent missteps by non-resident team members. Lahaina has huge historic significance to the Hawaiian people, Calanog said. It was there that King Kamehameha united the Hawaiian Islands, nearly 150 years before Hawaii became a state.  

With that greater understanding, the team committed wholeheartedly to doing things “the Maui way,” said Chris Myers, whose role on the island alternated between incident commander and deputy incident commander.  

Robert Fenton, FEMA’s Region 9 administrator and a 2022 Service to America Medals® finalist, said that while working in this “extremely culturally sensitive area,” the team “did a really good job of building relationships with local elders and employing cultural monitors within their team, and then using [residents of Hawaii] to do this mission.”    

Still, the situation was bleak. “There was devastation unlike any of the wildfires that we had done before,” said Guria, who added he was grateful to play a part in improving conditions for the people of Maui.  

“It’s the best feeling in the world to come in and help a community in such need and get them started to rebuild and recover,” he said.