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Maui search is 25% complete as death toll from wildfires grows to 99

A firefighting helicopter helps fight flare-up fires in Kula, Maui island, Hawaii, US, August 13, 2023.
A firefighting helicopter helps fight flare-up fires in Kula, Maui island, Hawaii, US, August 13, 2023.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Blake

Search teams with cadaver dogs have combed through 25% of the Lahaina disaster zone from the Maui wildfires, discovering the remains of a 99th victim on Monday, but perhaps hundreds more people were unaccounted for nearly a week after the disaster.

Fuelled by winds gusting up to 80mph (128kph), an inferno burning at temperatures that the governor said reached 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (538 degrees C) raced from the dry grasslands outside town into the historic resort town of Lahaina last Tuesday, turning block after block into ash.

The deadliest US wildfire in more than 100 years destroyed or damaged more than 2,200 buildings, 86% of them residential, causing an estimated $5.5 billion in damage.

Recognising the anxiety of survivors still looking for their loved ones, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier told a news conference that local, state and federal rescue workers were proceeding as fast as possible but that there was a “reverence” that encumbered the task.

“It's not just ash on your clothing when you take it off. It's our loved ones,” Pelletier said, relating the instructions that a director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave rescue workers in a briefing.

Pelletier said officials hoped to get through 85% to 90% of the disaster zone by this weekend. A team that started with one cadaver dog now has 20.

“Patience. Prayers. Perseverance. That's what we need,” Pelletier said.

Officials have cautioned that identifying victims would be a grim and difficult task, because the fire burnt so intensely that even metal structures melted.

Maui County briefly relaxed rules allowing Lahaina residents back to their homes but suspended that on Monday after curiosity seekers abused the system, clogging streets used by rescue workers, officials said. They also feared human remains may be trampled on. One person was arrested for trespassing, Pelletier said.

Help is arriving for those left homeless. Nearly 2,000 housing units, including 400 hotel rooms, 1,400 Airbnb units and 160 private homes were being made available, Hawaii Governor Josh Green told the news conference.

More than 3,200 residents of Hawaii have registered to receive federal assistance, and that number is expected to rise, Jeremy Greenberg, FEMA's director of response operations, told reporters.

Meanwhile, the search for missing loved ones persisted. Officials declined to estimate how many remained unaccounted for but promised they were meticulously verifying the status of all.

In one bit of positive news, officials on Sunday discovered 60 people taking refuge at a private home that had been isolated because without telephone communication or electricity. Many of those 60 had been listed as unaccounted for, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen said.

A crowdsourced database circulating on social media showed about 1,130 individuals listed as “not located” on a list of about 5,200 people as of Monday afternoon. The database includes names collected from “missing people” notices posted at shelters as well as information submitted by loved ones.

The American Red Cross had received over 2,500 calls from people trying to find and reunite with relatives and friends missing from the fire, and about 800 of those have been resolved, said Chris Young, senior director for operations and readiness.

The cause of the fire has not been determined, and many survivors have said they went unwarned before the inferno rapidly swept through town. Some people were forced to flee into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames.

Officials have urged tourists to stay away from West Maui but said other parts of the island remained open for business.

Green acknowledged the difficult balance between the need to keep people from obstructing recovery efforts and Maui's extreme dependence on tourism revenue.

“It would be potentially catastrophic if no-one travelled to the island,” the governor said.

Some residents voiced their frustration with tourists who chose to stay in Maui.

“We don't want tourists here at all,” Basil Spring said in a post on Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We need the time to heal as an island and to take care of our Lahaina ohana,” he said, using a Hawaiian term for “family.”

“Get out and stay out.


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