Cell tower fires did not cause Maui’s communications outages, power was the problem

In Featured News by Wireless Estimator


CNN said that Maui’s wildfires were consuming cell towers, causing communications to fail. Their story was picked up by mainstream and industry media. However, none of the approximately 12 cell towers on Maui were close to or damaged by the fires. Power outages were the primary cause of poor coverage, especially in Lahaina. Most of the island’s cell sites are on buildings, such as the Westin Maui, whose rooftop cell sites are managed by American Tower Corp. Although the resort is about a mile and one-half from the center of Lahaina, which was leveled, it did not receive any damage. It did, however, lose power. 

According to Hawaii Governor Josh Green, residents will be allowed to return to the devastated town of Lahaina in Maui today, stating, “They will see destruction like they have never seen in their lives.” Authorities said that most of the flames were contained.

Currently, the death toll is estimated at 55 but is expected to rise as the interior of buildings begins to be searched. The New York Times analyzed through satellite images that approximately 1,900 structures appear to have been damaged or destroyed in the historic town on the island’s west coast.

At one point, the fires were so intense that residents and tourists had to run into the ocean to escape the flames. The U.S. Coast Guard later rescued them.

Although the causes of the wildfires that started Tuesday night are still undetermined, they could have been caused by lightning strikes. However, 85% of wildfires are caused by humans, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Cell tower and telecom equipment damages were overblown

When the fire started to sweep through Lahaina, communications cell service in some areas was limited. According to Mahina Martin, chief communications officer at the Maui Emergency Management Agency, 911 service on Maui’s west side went down with some resorts, losing communications due to “downed cell towers”.

CNN reported her statement and brought in Glenn O’Donnell, VP of market research firm Forrester for color.

“When the fires get too close to cell sites, they will obviously burn equipment, antennas, and feedlines. In extreme cases, they will also weaken the towers, leading some to collapse,” said O’Donnell.

His comments were picked up by mainstream and industry media, and they relayed the crippling of cell towers.

CNN said fires at cell towers caused cell phone service to go down.

However, according to Wireless Estimator’s review of FCC and towerco data, there doesn’t appear to be a single tower in Lahaina, and the approximately 12 towers on the island are miles away from where the three wildfires were located.

The primary cause of service interruptions was power outages along the west coast, where it was reported that at least 14,000 homes and businesses did not have power.

Many cell sites are on top of condominiums, office buildings, and hotels.

For example, approximately one and one-half miles from the center of Lahaina, American Tower Corporation manages cell sites atop the Westin Maui resort’s 11-story buildings in Kannapali.

The complex did not suffer any fire damage, but Westin said in a statement, “The resort is also without power, as is much of the Maui coast.” It said on Wednesday that the resort was under a shelter in place and its management team was monitoring for mandatory evacuation.

Carriers on Thursday deployed mobile cells and satellites on wheels to assist with communications and Maui’s rescue efforts.

T-Mobile informed CNN that its cell sites were “holding up well during the fires,” but commercial power outages may be disrupting the service for some customers. “As soon as conditions allow, our priority is to deploy teams with portable generators that will bring temporary power back to our sites,”

Most of T-Mobile’s cell sites are on top of buildings.