Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series featuring Boulder City firefighters who assisted with the aftermath of the Maui fires.
During his nearly quarter-century with the Henderson Fire Department, Mike Porter saw firsthand the trail of devastation left behind by fire.
But for him, the fires on Maui, where the town of Lahaina was decimated, were different.
“Once we were over there it took about 24 hours for everything to really sink in,” he said. “The level of devastation, the fierceness of the fire and how quickly it went through that area was unbelievable. By the time people were able to conceptualize what was going on, it was too late.”
Porter, a Boulder City resident for the past 23 years and a reserve battalion chief for the Boulder City Fire Department, was sent to Maui as part of a mission-ready package, which included two handlers, three support staff and two human remains detection dogs, better known as a cadaver dog. Their job is to find the remains of those whose lives were lost. Porter went with his partner, 8-year-old Dexter, a yellow lab. However, by the time they were on the plane, it had been requested that Nevada send a type-3 team made up of 45 people to help support the operation. This included BCFD firefighter/paramedic Carl Fiord.
Porter and four others arrived the night of Aug. 10, then the next day met with officers from the Maui Police Department to develop a plan of where the human remains detection dogs were most needed.
“When we are requested to do work with Dexter, I have a good idea what our job is and that’s to help with the recovery process,” he said. “We never want to have to do that work, but that’s what we train for. Our goal at that point is to help families get reunited and become whole again so that they can get some closure.”
At last report, 115 people lost their lives in the fire, making it the deadliest in the country’s history in more than 100 years.
“We went to work that night and it really started settling in as to how devastating the fire was,” he said. “We had been given the number of missing but those were all over the board.”
That Saturday, the entire type-3 team from Nevada arrived.
“Everything gets searched,” Porter said. “Cars, residences, buildings, out-buildings, open fields – everything. That whole burn scar was searched. Within a day or two they made a request for more dogs and by the time we left there were 40 human remains dogs there. It takes a long time to search an area that size. This fire was so hot and so fast that all that was left was metal or block.”
And yes, Dexter did find remains.
In the past, Porter and Dexter have been called to other natural disasters, such as the Jackson County fires in Oregon and last year’s Hurricane Ian.
“There were a lot of similarities to the fires in Jackson County but on Maui, the magnitude was greater,” he said. “The devastation was greater. I believe a lot of that had to do with the interaction we had with the locals and the stories we heard from the firefighters. These people were in there helping us yet they had lost everything, lost loved ones and some even had burns on their arms. That made this seem so much greater than Oregon. Don’t get me wrong, Oregon had a lot of devastation but the devastation on Maui felt even more.”
Porter said another unique aspect of the Maui fires is that just about everyone has a tie to either Maui or somewhere in Hawaii. Whether that’s a second home, a friend or loved one who lives on the islands, they attended a wedding there, honeymooned on the islands or just have a fond memory of vacationing there, that connection runs deep.
“It’s this beautiful, tropical place that everyone has a great memory of, so I think for many people, that’s why it’s been watched so closely, because of that connection,” he said. “The people of Maui are amazing. They will recover and be stronger. They will rebuild and Lahaina will be that amazing community once again.”
In all, Porter and Dexter were on Maui for 15 days and were chosen to speak with President Joe Biden after he arrived.
“Since Dexter and I were the first dog team on the ground, I was requested by my supervisor to represent the crews on the ground when he (Biden) came in,” he said. “It was a very brief conversation but it was an honor to meet the office of the president. And just as engaging, as was the president, were the governor and senators who were there with him. The president shook my hand, he thanked us and asked about Dexter. That was about the extent but it was still pretty cool.”
As for what he will remember the most from those two weeks, Porter said it will be the stories of survival and resiliency.
“They thanked me for coming over there but I thanked them for allowing me to go over and help them because all those people are the true heroes,” he said. “They’re the ones who endured this tragedy and will continue to push forward to get through to the other side. The human spirit is amazing.”