Death toll from Maui wildfire reaches 89, making it the deadliest in the US in more than 100 years
Aug 12, 2023, 1:03 AM | Updated: 9:14 pm
(Photo: Rick Bowmer, AP)
LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — A raging wildfire that swept through a picturesque town on the Hawaiian island of Maui this week has killed at least 89 people, authorities said Saturday, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire of the past century.
The new death toll Saturday came as federal emergency workers with axes and cadaver dogs picked through the aftermath of the blaze, marking the ruins of homes with a bright orange X for an initial search and HR when they found human remains.
Dogs worked the rubble, and their occasional bark — used to alert their handlers to a possible corpse — echoed over the hot and colorless landscape.
The inferno that swept through the centuries-old town of Lahaina on Maui’s west coast four days earlier torched hundreds of homes and turned a lush, tropical area into a moonscape of ash. The state’s governor predicted more bodies will be found.
“It’s going to rise,” Gov. Josh Green remarked Saturday as he toured the devastation on historic Front Street. “It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced. … We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding.”
Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said two of the 89 victims have been identified so far, adding that identifying the dead is extremely challenging because “we pick up the remains and they fall apart.”
“When we find our family and our friends, the remains that we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal. We have to do rapid DNA to identify them. Every one of these 89 are John and Jane Does,” he said. “We know we’ve got to go quick, but we’ve got to do it right,”
At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Green said, of which 86% were residential. Across the island, he added, damage was estimated at close to $6 billion. He said it would take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.”
At least two other fires have been burning in Maui, with no fatalities reported thus far: in south Maui’s Kihei area and in the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry. A fourth broke out Friday evening in Kaanapali, a coastal community in West Maui north of Lahaina, but crews were able to extinguish it, authorities said.
Green said the Upcountry fire had affected 544 structures, of which 96% were residential.
Emergency managers in Maui were searching for places to house people displaced from their homes. As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook early Saturday, citing figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.
Those who escaped counted their blessings, thankful to be alive as they mourned those who didn’t make it.
Retired fire captain Geoff Bogar and his friend of 35 years, Franklin Trejos, initially stayed behind to help others in Lahaina and save Bogar’s house. But as the flames moved closer and closer Tuesday afternoon, they knew they had to get out. Each escaped to his own car. When Bogar’s wouldn’t start, he broke through a window to get out, then crawled on the ground until a police patrol found him and brought him to a hospital.
Trejos wasn’t as lucky. When Bogar returned the next day, he found the bones of his 68-year-old friend in the back seat of his car, lying on top of the remains of the Bogars’ beloved 3-year-old golden retriever Sam, whom he had tried to protect.
Trejos, a native of Costa Rica, had lived for years with Bogar and his wife, Shannon Weber-Bogar, helping her with her seizures when her husband couldn’t. He filled their lives with love and laughter.
“God took a really good man,” Weber-Bogar said.
Bill Wyland, who lives on the island of Oahu but owns an art gallery on Lahaina’s historic Front Street, fled on his Harley Davidson, whipping the motorcycle onto empty sidewalks Tuesday to avoid traffic-jammed roads as embers burned the hair off the back of his neck.
Riding in winds he estimated to be at least 70 miles per hour (112 kilometers per hour), he passed a man on a bicycle who was pedaling for his life.
“It’s something you’d see in a Twilight Zone, horror movie or something,” Wyland said.
The newly released death toll surpassed the toll of the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. A century earlier, the 1918 Cloquet Fire broke out in drought-stricken northern Minnesota and raced through a number of rural communities, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds.
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 alert system with sirens that are tested monthly.
Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate the warning sirens sounded before fire hit the town. Officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.
Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the wildfires on Maui raced through parched brush covering the island.
The most serious blaze swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000, leaving a grid of gray rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes.
Front Street, the heart of the historic downtown and Maui’s economic hub, was nearly empty of life Saturday morning. An Associated Press journalist encountered one barefoot resident carrying a laptop and a passport, who asked where the nearest shelter was. Another, riding a bicycle, took stock of the damage at the harbor, where he said his boat caught fire and sank.
Maui water officials warned Lahaina and Kula 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 vapor exposure.
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, who are responsible for three islands: Maui, Molokai and Lanai.
Green said officials will review policies and procedures to improve safety.
“People have asked why we are reviewing what’s going on and it’s because the world has changed. A storm now can be a hurricane-fire or a fire-hurricane,” he said. “That’s what we experienced, that’s why we’re looking into these policies, to find out how we can best protect our people.”
Riley Curran said he fled his Front Street home after climbing up a neighboring building to get a better look. He doubts county officials could have done more, given the speed of the onrushing flames.
“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything,” Curran said. “The fire went from zero to 100.”
Curran said he had seen horrendous wildfires growing up in California.
But, he added, “I’ve never seen one eat an entire town in four hours.”
Kelleher reported from Honolulu, and Dupuy reported from New York. Associated Press writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho; Andrew Selsky in Bend, Oregon; Bobby Caina Calvan in New York; Audrey McAvoy in Wailuku, Hawaii; Ty O’Neil in Lahaina, Hawaii; and Lisa J. Adams Wagner in Evans, Georgia, contributed to this report.
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