Hawaii wildfires death toll rises as survivors return to communities

Maui County raised the number of confirmed deaths to 80 in a statement at 9pm on Friday.

Hawaii wildfires death toll rises as survivors return to devastated communities in Maui county PA Media

Residents of Maui County are returning to communities left in ruins after wildfires killed at least 80 people.

Maui County raised the number of confirmed deaths to 80 in a statement at 9pm on Friday. Governor Josh Green had warned the death toll would likely rise as search and rescue operations continue. Authorities set a curfew from 10pm until 6am on Saturday.

“The recovery’s going to be extraordinarily complicated, but we do want people to get back to their homes and just do what they can to assess safely, because it’s pretty dangerous,” Mr Green told Hawaii News Now.

Anthony Garcia assessed the devastation as he stood under Lahaina’s banyan tree landmark, now charred, and swept twisted branches into neat piles next to another heap filled with dead animals including cats, roosters and other birds killed by the smoke and flames.

“If I don’t do something, I’ll go nuts,” said Mr Garcia, who lost everything he owned. “I’m losing my faith in God.”

Mr Garcia and other residents were faced with catastrophic destruction resulting from the wildfires that tore through parts of Maui this week and were still not fully contained by Friday night.

A new wildfire on Friday evening triggered the evacuation of Kaanapali in West Maui, a community north-east of the area that burned earlier, but crews were able to extinguish the fire before 8.30pm, authorities said.

Attorney general Anne Lopez announced plans to conduct a comprehensive review of decision-making and standing policies affecting the response to the deadly wildfires.

“My Department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review,” Ms Lopez said.

Dogs have been deployed to help in the search for bodies, Maui County mayor Richard Bissen Jr said.

The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. An even deadlier tsunami in 1946, which killed more than 150 on the Big Island, prompted development of a territory-wide emergency system with sirens that are tested monthly.

Many fire survivors said they did not hear any sirens or receive a warning giving them enough time to prepare, realising they were in danger only when they saw flames or heard explosions.

“There was no warning,” said Lynn Robinson, who lost her home.

Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate warning sirens sounded before people had to run for their lives. Officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.

Fuelled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, at least three wildfires erupted on Maui, racing through parched brush covering the island.

The most serious blaze swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and left a grid of gray rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes. Associated Press journalists found the devastation included nearly every building on Front Street, the heart of historic Lahaina and the economic hub of Maui.

There was an eerie traffic jam of charred cars that did not escape the inferno as surviving roosters meandered through the ashes. Palm trees were torched, boats in the harbour were scorched and the stench of burning lingered.

“It hit so quick, it was incredible,” Kyle Scharnhorst said as he surveyed his damaged apartment complex.

Summer and Gilles Gerling sought to salvage keepsakes from the ashes of their home. All they could find was the piggy bank Summer Gerling’s father gave her as a child, their daughter’s jade bracelet and watches they gifted each other for their wedding. Their wedding rings were gone.

They described their fear as the strong wind whipped the smoke and flames closer, but said they were happy to have made it out alive with their two children.

“Safety was the main concern. These are all material things,” Gilles Gerling said.

The wildfire is already projected to be the second-costliest disaster in Hawaii history, behind only Hurricane Iniki in 1992, according to disaster and risk modelling firm Karen Clark & Company. The fire is the deadliest in the US since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.

The danger on Maui was well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan updated in 2020 identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and several buildings at risk. The report also noted West Maui had the island’s second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.

“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan stated.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may have been hampered by limited staff and equipment.

Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, said there are a maximum of 65 county firefighters working at any given time with responsibility for three islands: Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

The department has about 13 fire engines and two ladder trucks, but no off-road vehicles to thoroughly attack brush fires before they reach roads or populated areas, he said.

Maui water officials warned Kula and Lahaina residents not to drink running water, which may be contaminated even after boiling, and to only take short, lukewarm showers in well-ventilated rooms to avoid possible chemical vapour exposure.

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