After watching from afar as flames ravaged the Hawaiian island of Maui this week, Riverside Fire Department Division Chief Michael Staley will see the destruction firsthand.
“Devastating. I’ve been through other wildfires in California. (It’s) something you’d never think of happening to Hawaii,” Staley said Thursday, Aug. 10, shortly before he and seven other urban search-and-rescue specialists left the city’s fire training center for Los Angeles, where on Friday they are scheduled to fly to Maui.
As of Thursday night, nearly five dozen deaths have been attributed to the fire, which started Tuesday night and was pushed through the west end of Maui by 70-mph winds from Hurricane Dora. Some 1,000 homes and landmarks have been destroyed.
President Joe Biden on Thursday mobilized three Federal Emergency Management Agency task forces in California: Task Force 6 in Riverside County and others in Oakland and Sacramento counties. There are 28 such task forces in the country, including eight in California.
Task Force 6 is made up of firefighters from Riverside, Cal Fire/Riverside County, Corona, Hemet, Murrieta and the Pechanga Band of Indians. Team members have searched the rubble and assisted in other ways at disasters such as the World Trade Center attacks, a mudslide in Washington state and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.
The eight people headed to Maui are all from the Riverside Fire Department, and their role will be to support those managing the disaster response.
The team has 10,000 hours of training in radio communications, hazardous materials and driving trucks, said Capt. Paul Seawright, a department spokesman. Any of them could be called to the front lines for a hazmat situation.
“My heart goes out to those affected by that erratic fire behavior. It’s tragic that we have to respond, because lives have been lost. But we are highly trained and we thrive in that opportunity to serve,” Seawright said.
The team loaded a 16-wheeler with radios, batteries, medical gear and shelters that will be flown to Maui, Staley said. Team members could be tasked with setting up satellite and Wi-Fi communications, as well as radios to link the various task forces.
Hawaii is familiar ground for Staley; his father was born in Hawaii and still has family there, on the Big Island. Staley, however, sounded focused on the task at hand.
“I’m there to support the mission,” he said. “That’s my job.”