Officials in Maui say the loss of life from the wildfires that have ravaged the island has risen to 67 as firefighting crews continue to desperately search for survivors and extinguish flare-ups in Lahaina, Pulehu/Kihei and upcountry Maui.
This officially makes the Lahaina fire Hawaii’s deadliest natural disaster in state history, surpassing the 61 confirmed deaths from a tsunami in Hilo in 1960.
Hawaii governor Josh Green said on Friday, “Without a doubt, there will be more fatalities. We do not know, ultimately, how many will have occurred.”
“We have not yet searched in the interior of the buildings. We’re waiting for Fema to help with that search as they are equipped to handle the hazmat conditions of the building,” said Richard Bissen, Maui county mayor, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Three days after the tragedy, Maui is morning the loss of life and land, while questions are emerging about the official response to the fires.
Officials confirmed late on Thursday that Hawaii’s emergency management records show no indication that public warning sirens were triggered, despite what the state describes as the largest integrated outdoor all-hazard public safety warning system in the world.
Instead, the county sent emergency alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations. But power and cellphone service outages may have impacted their reach.
According to reports, a brush fire was first spotted early on Tuesday, and Maui county officials ordered evacuations in an area on the eastern edge of town.
The Maui fire department chief, Brad Ventura, said the fire moved so quickly from brush to neighborhoods that it was impossible to get messages to the emergency management agencies responsible for alerts.
Marlon Vasquez, a 31-year-old cook from Guatemala, said by the time he heard fire alarms it was already too late to flee in his car.
“I opened the door, and the fire was almost on top of us,” he said from an evacuation center at a gymnasium. “We ran and ran. We ran almost the whole night and into the next day, because the fire didn’t stop.”
By Thursday afternoon, firefighters managed to build perimeters around most of the Lahaina fire and another near the resort-filled area of Kihei, but they were still not fully contained. The official death toll stood at 55. Thousands of structures were confirmed destroyed.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burned down. Without a doubt, it feels like a bomb was dropped on Lahaina,” the Hawaii governor, Josh Green, said after walking the ruins of the town on Thursday morning with the mayor.
“Understand this: Lahaina Town is hallowed, sacred ground right now because our iwi are in that ground,” the Maui police chief, John Pelletier, said at an afternoon news conference, referring to ancestral remains. “We have to get them out. We will get them out as fast as we can. But I need your patience while we do this.”
A government spreadsheet of names of Lahaina residents indicates that hundreds of people remain unaccounted for, especially with communications systems badly affected.
County officials are allowing residents of West Maui to re-enter Lahaina via Maalaea, which is east of the fires, starting at noon local time. Locals must show proof of residence and visitors with proof of hotel reservations can also enter, according to a county of Maui Facebook post.
West Maui remains without water and power and search efforts are continuing, the county statement says. One zone remains restricted with no access due to continuing hazardous conditions.
Maui authorities also faced questions about the disaster response. Some survivors of the fire took to social media complaining that the authorities are being too harsh on members of the public trying to bring vital supplies into the Lahaina area to help those stuck and those who want to get out but do not have gas for their vehicles.
One such video posted by a Lahaina resident, Pa’ele Kulani, has gone viral after he claimed locals were being turned away by authorities at roadblocks.
Kulani’s grandmother’s house burned down in Lahaina, he said on Instagram, and he is sheltering her and others in his house, which is intact, but where he is running out of food and water to supply those he is sheltering.
He said people were unable to obtain propane or, vitally, fuel for their cars.
“People want to leave, but they don’t have the gas to leave,” he said, adding that his grandmother needed medicine that he needed to travel to obtain but daren’t in case the authorities barred him from returning.
“People are suffering,” he said. Many across the archipelago reposted the video across social media platforms and one concerned resident on Hawaii Island tagged the state’s Democratic governor for help.
Green responded that due to the extensive damage, Maui county is only allowing access to approved entities with the focus on searching for survivors. He added that it is not safe or secure in the area of conflagration.
Meanwhile, on Thursday night, Green noted at a press conference that the climate emergency was fueling the extreme conditions boosting the deadly fires.
“Climate change is here,” he said.
After a dry summer, strong winds racing from a region of high pressure to fill an area of low pressure created by a hurricane 500 miles to the south of Hawaii have been blamed for fanning the flames.
Officials don’t know yet exactly how the brush fire started.
But a lack of rainfall and combustible non-native grasses and vegetation are blamed for intensifying the emergency. Nearly a fifth of Maui is in severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.
The only thing that can really handle living there in many cases are more of those invasive species. It’s systemic. Air, land and water are all impacted
Elizabeth Pickett, co-executive director of the Hawaii wildfire management organization, said fire could result in soil erosion, adding to the issue of invasive species. “The only thing that can really handle living there in many cases are more of those invasive species,” Pickett said. “It’s systemic. Air, land and water are all impacted.”
Maui county’s hazard mitigation plan also noted that West Maui, where Lahaina is located, had the island’s highest population of people living in multi-unit housing, the 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 noted.
Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii firefighters association, said the island’s firefighting capability may also have been hampered by a small staff and no off-road vehicles.
“You’re basically dealing with trying to fight a blowtorch,” Lee said.