Crews work to identify many of the 93 victims found so far in Maui wildfires, now the deadliest US fire in over a century
The death toll from the Maui wildfires climbed to at least 93 Saturday as authorities work to identify the victims and sift through the burned communities of western Maui.
The fire is now the deadliest US wildfire in more than 100 years, according to research from the National Fire Protection Association.
“This is the largest natural disaster we’ve ever experienced,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said at a Saturday night news conference. “It’s going to also be a natural disaster that’s going to take an incredible amount of time to recover from.”
Whipped by winds from Hurricane Dora hundreds of miles offshore, fast-moving wildfires wiped out entire neighborhoods, burned historic landmarks to the ground and displaced thousands. As searches of the burned ruins continue, officials warn they do not know exactly how many people are still missing in the torched areas.
Only about 3% of the fire zone has been searched with cadaver dogs, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said, and authorities expect the already staggering death toll to rise.
“None of us really know the size of it yet,” Pelletier said at Saturday night’s news conference.
Only two of the people whose remains have been found have been identified, according to an update from Maui County.
“We need to find your loved ones,” Pelletier said, urging those with missing family members to coordinate with authorities to do a DNA test.
“The remains we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal.”
Meanwhile, firefighters who continue to battle the flames – practically nonstop in some instances – have made some progress in containing the blazes. Of the three largest wildfires that crews have been combating, the deadly fire in hard-hit Lahaina has not grown, but is still not fully under control, Maui County Fire Chief Brad Ventura said.
The Pulehu fire – located farther east in Kihei – was declared 100% contained Saturday, according to Maui County. A third inferno in the hills of Maui’s central Upcountry was 50% contained on Friday, officials said.
As firefighting efforts continue, the state is surveying the immense destruction in once vibrant, beloved communities.
Around 2,200 structures have been destroyed or damaged by the fires in West Maui, about 86% of them residential, Green said Saturday.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier on Saturday said it was premature to assign even an approximate dollar amount to the damage done on Maui, the governor estimated that “the losses approach $6 billion.”
“The devastation is so complete, that you see metals twisted in ways that you can’t imagine,” Green said. “And you see nothing from organic structures left whatsoever.”
“We’ve gone through tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but this event was much more catastrophic than any of those here,” Green said.
Here’s the latest as of Saturday evening:
Police are restricting access into West Maui: The one highway into the hard-hit Lahaina area remains highly restricted. Residents slept in a mile-long line of cars overnight Saturday, hoping to enter.
Thousands displaced: The fires have displaced thousands of people, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN on Thursday. A total of 1,418 people are at emergency evacuation shelters, according to Maui County officials.
Hotel rooms for evacuees: Around 1,000 hotel rooms were secured for evacuees and first responders, Green said, but it’s a challenge to get people into hotel rooms that have enough electricity. Long term housing solutions were also being sought.
Cellphone services coming back: While the fires initially knocked down communications and made it hard for residents to call 911 or update loved ones, county officials said Friday that cellphone services are becoming available. People are still advised to limit calls.
Maui’s warning sirens were not activated: State records show Maui’s warning sirens were not activated, and the emergency communications with residents was largely limited to mobile phones and broadcasters at a time when most power and cell service was already cut.
Disaster response under review: Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez will lead a comprehensive review of officials’ response to the catastrophic wildfires, her office said Friday. “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,” Lopez said in a statement.
‘We come at this like an ohana’
More than a dozen federal agencies have been deployed to Hawaii to assist in the recovery efforts, including the National Guard, FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Local sites and attractions meant for summer revelers are now being turned into relief beacons.
Pacific Whale Foundation, which typically operates eco-tours across Maui, is instead using its ship to transport supplies like batteries, flashlights, water, food and diapers to people in need.
And at the Lahaina Gateway and the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, food and water distribution sites have been set up, according to Green.
Thousands of pounds of food have been donated and are on the way, the governor said Saturday.
“We come at this like an ohana because it’s going to be, in the short term, heartbreaking. In the long term, people are going to need mental health care services. In the very long term, we’ll rebuild together,” Green said.
The Hawaii Department of Transportation will set aside a runway at Kahului Airport – the primary airport on the island of Maui – to accommodate incoming relief supplies, officials announced Saturday.
For those who’ve lost their homes, at least 1,000 rooms have been secured for them as well as support staff, the governor said.
“Then coming after that, in the days that follow, we’ll have long term rentals. Those are the short term rentals turned long term now,” Green said.
Meanwhile, tourism authorities are focused on helping visitors get out of Maui, alleviating the pressure on residents and traffic, so that “attention and resources” can be focused on the island’s recovery, Hawaii Tourism Authority spokesperson Ilihia Gionson said Saturday.
Gionson, who is a native Hawaiian, said residents will draw strength from the deep history of Lahaina — a former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom — and “the very powerful spirits of Maui.”
“It’s really in the families and in the hearts of the Kama’aina, the residents of those places, that those kinds of stories, those kinds of histories live,” he told CNN. “So our hearts, our prayers, all of our Aloha is with those families who have lost loved ones, who have lost their homes, who have lost businesses, livelihoods, lifestyles — it’s just devastating.”
Road closures on main highway into Lahaina
Maui police have been restricting residents on-and-off from taking the Honoapi’ilani Highway – the main roadway into devastated Lahaina.
Some residents slept in a mile-long line of cars overnight Saturday, hoping to enter by morning. But police told drivers that traffic is jammed on the main road and that conditions are too dangerous.
Steven and Giulietta Daiker said they were nearly up to the main checkpoint after hours of waiting when they learned they were only going to be turned around. “They couldn’t have told us that three miles back, or couldn’t have been on a bullhorn or on the radio?” Steven asked.
“It’s not just frustration. It feels sickening,” Giulietta added.
Officials say they have to limit access as conditions remain hazardous where homes were leveled by the fires.
“We’re not doing anybody any favors by letting them back in there quickly, just so they can go get sick,” Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said at Saturday’s news conference.
CNN’s Michelle Watson, Mike Valerio, Andy Rose, Cole Higgins, Rebekah Riess, Paul P. Murphy and Haley Britzky contributed to this report.
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