Maui fire: 93 killed as governor warns of ‘significant’ death toll rise

A resident looks around a charred apartment complex in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on 12 August. Photo: AFP

By Max Matza and Holly Honderich in Maui and Kathryn Armstrong in London, BBC

Ninety-three people have been confirmed killed in the Maui fire that razed the historic town of Lahaina, marking the most deadly US fire in a century.

The number of victims could rise “significantly”, Hawaii Governor Josh Green warned on Saturday, as forensic work continues to identify the victims.

Hundreds remain unaccounted for while hundreds of others fill shelters across Maui after fleeing the flames.

“It’s an impossible day,” Green said.

The fire will “certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced”, he said.

“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.”

While the wildfires are now largely under control, efforts to fully extinguish them are continuing in parts of the island, including around Lahaina, which has been devastated.

Authorities have focused efforts on combing through what is left of the coastal area of the island, using sniffer dogs trained to detect bodies to look for signs of corpses under the rubble.

So far, they have covered only 3 percent of the search area, said a visibly emotional Maui Police chief John Pelletier.

“You have to do rapid DNA [testing] to identify them, every one of these 89 are John and Jane Doe [initially unidentified],” he said.

“None of us really understand the size of this yet.”

This aerial photo shows destroyed buildings and homes in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on August 11, 2023. A wildfire that left Lahaina in charred ruins has killed at least 55 people, authorities said on August 10, making it one of the deadliest disasters in the US state's history. Brushfires on Maui, fueled by high winds from Hurricane Dora passing to the south of Hawaii, broke out August 8 and rapidly engulfed Lahaina. (Photo by Sébastien VUAGNAT / AFP)

Destroyed buildings and homes in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on 11 August 2023. Photo: SEBASTIEN VUAGNAT / AFP

Jeremy Greenberg, a senior official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has told the BBC that extra support being sent included urban search and rescue, and fire suppression teams.

“The absolute number one priority is survivor safety,” he said.

Greenberg added that while close to 1000 people are still yet to be contacted, some of these may be safe but out of reach for a number of reasons.

In the emergency shelter at Maui’s War Memorial Complex on Saturday, hundreds of evacuees continued to gather, receiving food, toiletries and medical aid from a still-growing number of volunteers.

Large whiteboards noted the most pressing needs – batteries, water, and generators – and an all-caps note that no more clothing was needed.

Keapo Bissen, a member of the War Memorial shelter team, said the list of the missing was fluctuating hour to hour as more people reported absent loved ones, and others were found.

“We’ve had a lot of great reunions happen in this parking lot,” she said. “That’s really been the bright side in all of this.”

It is thought that more than 2000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed since the fires broke out. The majority of these were homes in the Lahaina area.

The main road to Lahaina, the Honoapiilani highway, was briefly re-opened to residents on Saturday, before quickly being closed again.

Hundreds of Lahaina residents have stayed in line on the highway anyway, hoping to be be allowed through.

Liz Germansky, who lost her home in the fire, is angry about the response.

“The government’s getting in the way of people helping,” she said, sitting in that same traffic queue.

Another route, the Kahekili Highway, is open, but locals say it is far too dangerous to attempt that drive. The road – known simply here as “the backroad” to Lahaina – is barely wide enough for one car, has many hair-pin turns, and a steep drop-off.

“We can’t drive this truck there. It’s a cliff,” said resident Ruth Lee who was stuck in traffic trying to bring supplies to her family that stayed behind.

The cost of rebuilding Maui has been estimated at USD$5.5 billion (NZD$9.1b), according to the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) and FEMA, which is coordinating the relief effort to Hawaii from Washington.

Helicopter pilot Richard Olsten has flown over Maui and told the BBC that even most of the boats in the harbour were burnt and had sunk.

“The historic buildings, the church, the missionary building and so forth – all gone,” he said.

“The main tourist area where all the shops and restaurants are, the historic front street – everything burnt to the ground.”

Felicia Johnson, who owns a printing business in the city of Kahului, Maui, is organising a massive grassroots response to the disaster.

Her family is from the Lahaina area. She has amassed hundreds of pounds of donated supplies to bring in, but has been unable to shuttle them through the government checkpoint.

She said that pleading with authorities to let her enter with her donated goods is the hardest part for her emotionally – not the devastation she has witnessed while dropping off supplies.

“That’s the part that I’m so wrecked on, is I got to keep begging you to come in to feed people.”

Many of the docks in the area are too badly damaged or destroyed to bring in supplies by boat, Johnson said.

Some people that have made the journey have swum the supplies to the shore.

Some of the young men helping her load supplies blame government mismanagement and bureaucracy.

“Too many chiefs, not enough warriors,” said Bradah Young, 25.

“Everybody is in charge but nobody is moving,” said another man.

As they departed in hope of being allowed through the checkpoint, one man threw up a shaka, a traditional hand greeting in Hawaii.

Source: RNZ