Maui wildfires death toll may rise as search of charred
Maui wildfires death toll may rise as search of charred

Maui wildfires’ death toll may rise as search of charred Lahaina continues

KAHULUI, Hawaii (Reuters) – Search teams on Monday resumed the painstaking, dangerous task of picking through the ashes of Lahaina for more victims of the Maui wildfires, as officials warned the death toll of 96 – already the highest from any U.S. wildfire in more than a century – will rise in the coming days.

Nearly a week after the fast-moving fire leveled most of the historic resort town, hundreds of people remained unaccounted for. Residents were still unable to return to the site of the fire due to the risks posed by possible hot spots and toxic fumes.

The blaze was the deadliest natural disaster in state history. The toll of 96 is the largest number of deaths from an American wildfire since 1918, when 453 people died in the Cloquet Fire in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Dogs trained to detect bodies were helping with the methodical, block-by-block search; they had covered only about 3% of the area as of Saturday night, Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier told reporters at the time.

The chief also warned that identifying victims would be a grim and difficult task, given how intensely the fire had burned; metal structures melted in the heat.

“The area my home is in, they’re still searching for bodies,” said Chris Loeffler, 35, whose mother and relatives fled his childhood home last Tuesday when the flames reached a block and a half away. The wooden plantation-style home- likely destroyed – had been in his family for five generations.

Loeffler, who lives in New Mexico but was planning to return to Lahaina permanently, said he was worried some residents would sell their properties and leave the island.

“We’re trying to warn everybody, ‘Don’t sell, don’t give in, keep your head up,'” said Loeffler. “‘Once you leave Lahaina, we lose Lahaina.'”

At a White House briefing on Monday, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell said more cadaver dogs were on their way to Lahaina, but that the search was “extremely hazardous” and would take time.

“There are structures that are partially standing that engineers have to clear first to make sure it’s safe for the search-and-rescue teams to go into,” she said.

‘I JUST NEED TO KNOW HE IS SAFE’

A crowd-sourced database circulating on social media showed some 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 persons” notices posted at shelters as well as information submitted by loved ones.

Relatives took to social media in search of news about missing family members.

“MISSING: My Dad, Michael Misaka, has been missing since the Lahaina Fires started,” Megan Sweeting wrote on Facebook. “If there is any information out there regarding my dad please let me know. I just need to know he is safe.”

The cause of the fire has not been determined, and many survivors have said they got no warning before the inferno swept through town at lightning speed, fueled by wind gusts that reached 80 miles (130 km) per hour. Some people were forced to flee into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames.

A system of sirens intended to alert residents of impending threats did not go off. Hawaii Governor Josh Green and other officials have promised to investigate the response to the fire and the state’s emergency notification systems.

Two lawsuits have already been filed on behalf of residents against Hawaiian Electric Industries, claiming its equipment was responsible. A spokesperson for the utility told CNN it would not comment on pending litigation; the company has said it will cooperate with the state in investigating the cause of the fire.

The Lahaina fire had burned 2,170 acres (878 hectares) and was 85% contained as of Sunday night, Maui County said on its website, adding that there were “no active threats at this time.”

Officials have urged tourists to consider rescheduling travel plans to west Maui, and visitors have largely heeded calls to depart the island. About 46,000 people had flown out of Kahului Airport, Maui’s main airport, between Wednesday and Saturday, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Some residents voiced their frustration on social media with tourists who chose not to stay away.

“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.”

But businesses in other parts of the island were concerned that cutting off tourism for all of Maui could hurt workers elsewhere.

“50% of our visitor economy still exists and is thriving in South Maui,” the Maui Fresh Streatery food truck posted on Facebook. “Lahaina and West Maui is CLOSED for tourism. Respect our time to deal with this tragedy. Don’t try to sneak in and play tourist there because it is sacred ground. But I truly feel the Maui is still open.”

(Reporting by Jorge Garcia and Mike Blake; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Rich McKay, Andrew Hay, Doyinsola Oladipo and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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