By Danielle DeSimone
A series of wildfires unexpectedly ripped through the Hawaiian island of Maui on Wednesday, August 9, 2023, leaving immense devastation in its wake.
Along with local firefighters and first responders, service members from nearly every branch of the U.S. military have been activated to respond to the wildfires and recovery efforts on Maui. As the military works to respond to these devastating blazes and assist local residents, the USO is there to support the people who serve throughout their mission.
The National Guard’s Response
Brush fires, fueled by strong winds from a passing hurricane, quickly spread the wildfires through Maui this week, catching local residents and tourists by surprise. The wildfire is now being described as Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster since 1960, and is the deadliest wildfire in the United States in the past century – as of Thursday, August 17, over 100 people have died, with the death toll likely to rise, and more than 1,000 residents are still missing. Governor Josh Green has reported that 2,200 buildings have been destroyed – most of them residential. The town of Lahaina, the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and a popular tourist destination, was decimated. Much of the island continues to not have access to running water or electricity.
In the midst of the wildfires raging through the island, the U.S. military immediately leapt to action. The U.S. Coast Guard immediately deployed and rescued 14 survivors who had jumped into the water and taken shelter from the fire behind the Lahaina Harbor breakwall. Additional Coast Guard air crews and cutters have also been deployed to support further search and rescue missions.
Meanwhile, the Hawaii National Guard has also been deployed, activating 258 troops — including people serving in both the Army National Guard and in the Air National Guard – to assist in ongoing wildfire response and rescue missions. Several Chinook helicopters are helping with firefighting operations, which has included performing 58 bucket drops in five hours in the immediate aftermath, dumping 100,000 gallons of water on the fires.
The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have also mobilized, sending helicopter air crews to assist with both search and rescue missions, as well as firefighting operations.
As of Monday, August 17, there are several fires still burning on Maui and the Big Island (that is, the Island of Hawaii), but the fire that struck the town of Lahaina is now 89% contained. However, local firefighters and the military are still fighting to control the spread.
How the USO is Supporting Service Members Responding to the Maui Wildfires
The people who serve in our nation’s military are trained to respond to various emergencies, including natural disasters like wildfires. These dedicated service members are always prepared to do the work, but responding to catastrophic events, like the wildfires in Hawaii, can be physically and emotionally taxing – especially for members of the National Guard, who are often responding to emergencies within their own communities.
In fact, Hawaii is home to more than 250,000 service members and military family members. And with rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, it is also a crucial outpost of our country’s national security. To support the people who serve in Hawaii, the USO has seven permanent locations throughout the Hawaiian islands.
Given the stressful nature of these wildfire operations, as well as the USO’s unique positioning in Hawaii, our organization is prepared to support these service members throughout their mission.
Almost immediately after the wildfires and the military’s mobilization, the USO has stepped up to support the people in our military who are responding to this disaster.
Members of the Coast Guard are currently working on 24-hour rotational shifts as they conduct nonstop search and rescue missions and contain oil and debris from spreading into waterways. These missions are difficult – both physically and mentally – and at the end of a long, 24 hours of high-pressure work, access to hot meals is limited. To make sure they have the fuel they need to keep going, the USO has provided these hardworking individuals with meals and refreshments, and will continue to do so.
Meanwhile, members of the National Guard have been tasked with search and rescue – as well as recovery efforts – throughout the impact zone in Lahaina, searching for both survivors and victims of the fires. The emotional impact of these efforts can be immense, as many of these Guard members are locals and a part of the Lahaina community. To see the devastation of their community, all while potentially dealing with the loss of loved ones or their own homes, can take a toll. This is why the USO has been on the ground in Maui right alongside them to boost morale, providing snacks, meals and a comforting welcome at the end of their long, 12-hour shifts.
The USO Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) Center in Hawaii has also sprang into action. USO PTA Center Manager Jody Brissette – a veteran himself – has committed to keeping the center’s doors open for service members on-base tasked with fighting wildfires, even as his own home has been threatened by the fires.
There are over 400 people who serve in the military currently aiding Maui, with possibly 100 more expected to join in the recovery efforts in the next week. They will all continue to need support throughout this physically and emotionally demanding mission.
As service members work quickly to put out these wildfires, conduct search and rescue missions and assist in the recovery efforts on Maui, the USO will be with them every step of the way.
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