At least 89 people have died in the fire that consumed the historic town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui, governor Josh Green has said, making it the deadliest US wildfire in more than a century and with the toll expected to rise.
“It’s an impossible day,” governor Josh Green told reporters on Saturday after viewing the devastation. Earlier, he said operations were now centered on “the loss of life”.
The fire was “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.”
At a press conference later he repeated his warning that the death toll would rise. Dogs trained to detect bodies have covered only 3% of the search area, Maui county police chief John Pelletier said.
“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. And we’ve got 89 so far. Today we identified two,” Pelletier said, adding that “none of us really know the size of [the death toll] yet.”
The newly released figure surpassed the toll of the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. A century earlier, the 1918 Cloquet Fire destroyed thousands of homes and killed 453 people in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The cost to rebuild Lahaina was estimated at $5.5bn, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with more than 2,200 structures damaged or destroyed and more than 2,100 acres (850 hectares) burned.
Officials have secured 1,000 hotel rooms for people who lost their homes and are arranging for rental properties to serve as housing at no cost to families, Green said. More than 1,400 people had been taken in at emergency shelters.
Deanne Criswell, the FEMA director, said the agency had 150 people on the ground and that additional search teams and dogs would be arriving within a day or two.
Crews have marked homes that remained standing with a bright orange X to signal they had searched for bodies and HR when they found human remains.
The fire reduced hundreds of homes to ash, sending emergency workers scrambling Saturday to find temporary housing for those lucky enough to survive. Communications were still difficult, with 30 cell towers still offline. Power outages were expected to last several weeks on the western side of the island.
Those who escaped 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 get out. Each escaped to his own car. When Bogar’s 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.
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.
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.
Riding in winds he estimated to be at least 70 mph (112 kilometers an 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.
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.
But Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate warning sirens sounded before people had to run for their lives.
The state’s attorney general, Anne Lopez, said she was launching a review of the decision-making both before and during the fire, while Green told CNN he had authorized a review of the emergency response.
Local officials have described a nightmarish confluence of factors, including communications network failures, powerful wind gusts from an offshore hurricane and a separate wildfire dozens of miles away, that made it nearly impossible to coordinate in real time with the emergency management agencies that would typically issue warnings and evacuation orders.
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.
Authorities began allowing residents back into west Maui on Friday, though the fire zone in Lahaina remained barricaded and some residents 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 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.
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.”