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Maui fire death toll reaches 93, 4.5K without homes

Updated August 13, 2023 - 12:18 pm

LAHAINA, Hawaii — As the death toll from a wildfire that razed a historic Maui town climbed to 93, authorities warned that the effort to find and identify the dead was still in its early stages. The blaze is already the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

Crews with cadaver dogs have covered just 3 percent of the search area, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said Saturday.

“We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles, and it is full of our loved ones,” he said, noting that the number of dead is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”

He spoke as federal emergency workers picked through the ashen moonscape left by the fire that razed the centuries-old town of Lahaina. Teams marked the ruins of homes with a bright orange “X” to indicate an initial search, and “HR” when they found human remains.

Pelletier said identifying the dead is challenging because “we pick up the remains and they fall apart.” The remains have been through “a fire that melted metal.” Only two people have been identified so far, he said.

During the search efforts, the barks of cadaver dogs alerting their handlers to potential remains echoed over the hot, colorless landscape.

“It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced,” Gov. Josh Green said as he toured the devastation on historic Front Street. “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.”

At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Green said, nearly all of them residential. Across the island, damage was estimated at close to $6 billion.

At least two other fires have been burning on Maui: in south Maui’s Kihei area and in the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry. No fatalities have been reported from those blazes.

The Upcountry fire affected 544 structures, most of them homes, Green said.

As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook, citing figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.

Pelletier encouraged people with missing family members to go to a family assistance center to take a DNA test.

“We need to identify your loved ones,” Pelletier said.

Those who escaped were 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 flee.

Each escaped to his own car. When Bogar’s vehicle 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.

Man, dog found in car

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 madly pedaling for his life.

“It’s something you’d see in a Twilight Zone, horror movie or something,” Wyland said.

Wyland realized just how lucky he had been when he returned to downtown Lahaina on Thursday.

“It was devastating to see all the burned-out cars. There was nothing that was standing,” he said.

His gallery was destroyed, along with the works of 30 artists.

4.5K need shelter

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.

Flyovers by the Civil Air Patrol found 1,692 structures destroyed — almost all of them residential. Nine boats sank in Lahaina Harbor, officials determined using sonar.

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.

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.

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 mostly devoid of life

Front Street, the heart of the historic downtown and the economic hub of Maui, was nearly empty of life Saturday morning. An Associated Press journalist encountered one barefoot resident carrying a laptop and passport who asked where the nearest shelter was. Another, riding his bicycle, took stock of the damage at the harbor, where he said his boat caught fire and sank.

A fire engine and a few construction trucks were seen driving through the neighborhood, but it remained eerily devoid of human and official government activity. Some residents have expressed frustration about the difficulty of accessing their homes because of road closures and police checkpoints.

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 wildfire is already projected to be the second-costliest disaster in Hawaii history, behind only Hurricane Iniki in 1992, according to disaster and risk modeling firm Karen Clark & Company. The fire is the deadliest in the U.S. 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.

‘Fire went from zero to 100’

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.

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. Associated Press writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho; Andrew Selsky in Bend, Oregon; Bobby Caina Calvan in New York; Audrey McAvoy in Wailuku, Hawaii, and Lisa J. Adams Wagner in Evans, Georgia, contributed to this report.

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