Maui Top Emergency Official Resigns After Defending Decision Not to Raise Sound Sirens During Wildfire

Herman Andaya previously said residents "would have gone into the fire" if the sirens meant for tsunamis went off

Maui's top emergency official resigned Thursday, the day after defending his decision not to raise sound sirens to warn residents of the devastating wildfires that are confirmed to have killed 111 people so far.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen accepted Maui Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Administrator Herman Andaya's resignation. Andaya cited "health reasons" for his decision.

"Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, my team and I will be placing someone in this key position as quickly as possible and I look forward to making that announcement soon," Bissen said in a statement.

Related: Maui Death Toll Reaches 111 as Evidence Suggests Power Lines May Have Started Fire

During a news conference Wednesday, Andaya told reporters he did not regret not sounding warning sirens, per NBC News. Most sirens are located around the coastline and used for tsunamis.

"The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded," Andaya explained, per NBC News. “Had we sounded the siren that night, we were afraid that people would have gone [to the mountainside]. And if that’s the case, then they would have gone into the fire.”

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Maui County's website on tests of its All-Hazard Statewide Outdoor Warning Siren System notes that the system can be used for wildfires. On Wednesday, Andaya said counties in Hawaii "will tell you that sirens have not been used for brushfires," per NBC News. He explained that MEMA uses Wireless Emergency Alert and the Emergency Alert System, which use cell phone text messages, radio, and television, instead.



Related: How to Help Hawaii Wildfire Victims, Including Ways to Donate

In a new update Thursday evening, Maui officials said the Lahaina fire, which devastated the historic town, was now 89 percent contained and there were "no active threats at this time." The Olinda and Kula fires are 85 percent and 80 percent contained, respectively, according to officials. The number of confirmed fatalities remains at 111, with the Maui Police reporting that 40 percent of the area was searched so far.

"MPD and assisting partners have been working tirelessly to ensure that proper protocols are followed while notifying the families of the victims involved," the Maui Police Department wrote in a statement on Wednesday. "Our priority is to handle this situation with the utmost sensitivity and respect for those who are grieving."

Five victims were identified by police. They are Robert Dyckman, 74, Buddy Jantoc, 79, Melva Benjamin, 71, Virginia Dofa, 90, and Alfredo Galinato, 79.

Irreplaceable artifacts representing Native Hawaiian culture in Lahaina were destroyed by the fires, including the historic Waiola Church.

"It’s like what you think of churches in England or Rome," Kuhio Lewis, the CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, tells PEOPLE. "It’s where many of our chiefs are buried. So under the rubble are their ancestral remains. Lahaina was a sacred place as much as those. The church has significance to our culture, and now it is just gone."

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There are also fears among Native Hawaiians about the role they will play in rebuilding Maui, which faced housing issues before the fire.

"There’s a fear among Native Hawaiians and local people in general that they’ll be left out of the rebuilding and a massive land grab will happen because they can’t afford to rebuild," Jeanne Cooper, co-author of Frommer's Hawaii, tells PEOPLE. "This is one of the last bastions of working-class affordable housing for Native Hawaiians that was close to jobs, and now it could be gone."

There is evidence that blown power lines may have played a role in starting the blaze, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and ABC News reported. On Aug. 7, a Maui Bird Conservation Center security camera captured footage of a bright flash in the woods just before 11 p.m. local time, the outlets reported. Officials said the fire was first reported "shortly after midnight."

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